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Christoph Schiller

MOTION MOUNTAIN
the adventure of physics vol.iii
light, charges and brains

www.motionmountain.net

Christoph Schiller

Motion Mountain
The Adventure of Physics
Volume III

Light, Charges and Brains

Edition 26, available as free pdf


with films at www.motionmountain.net

Editio vicesima sexta.


Proprietas scriptoris Chrestophori Schiller
tertio anno Olympiadis trigesimae.
Omnia proprietatis iura reservantur et vindicantur.
Imitatio prohibita sine auctoris permissione.
Non licet pecuniam expetere pro aliqua, quae
partem horum verborum continet; liber
pro omnibus semper gratuitus erat et manet.

Twenty-sixth edition.
Copyright 19902014 by Christoph Schiller,
the third year of the 30th Olympiad.

This pdf file is licensed under the Creative Commons


Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Germany
Licence, whose full text can be found on the website
creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/de,
with the additional restriction that reproduction, distribution and use,
in whole or in part, in any product or service, be it
commercial or not, is not allowed without the written consent of
the copyright owner. The pdf file was and remains free for everybody
to read, store and print for personal use, and to distribute
electronically, but only in unmodified form and at no charge.

To Britta, Esther and Justus Aaron

Die Menschen strken, die Sachen klren.

PR EFAC E

Primum movere, deinde docere.*

Antiquity

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

* First move, then teach. In modern languages, the mentioned type of moving (the heart) is called motivating; both terms go back to the same Latin root.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Munich, 15 February 2014.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

This book is written for anybody who is curious about nature and motion. Curiosity
about how people, animals, things, images and empty space move leads to many adventures. This volume presents the adventures encountered when exploring everything electric. They lead from the weighing of electric current to the use of magnetic fields to heal
bone fractures and up to the use of light to cut metals and the understanding of the human brain.
In the structure of physics, shown in Figure 1, motion due to electricity is the most
fascinating aspect of the starting point at the bottom. Indeed, almost everything around
us is due to electric processes. The present introduction to electricity, magnetism, light
and the brain is the third of a six-volume overview of physics that arose from a threefold
aim that I have pursued since 1990: to present motion in a way that is simple, up to date
and captivating.
In order to be simple, the text focuses on concepts, while keeping mathematics to the
necessary minimum. Understanding the concepts of physics is given precedence over
using formulae in calculations. The whole text is within the reach of an undergraduate.
In order to be up to date, the text is enriched by the many gems both theoretical and
empirical that are scattered throughout the scientific literature.
In order to be captivating, the text tries to startle the reader as much as possible. Reading a book on general physics should be like going to a magic show. We watch, we are
astonished, we do not believe our eyes, we think, and finally we understand the trick.
When we look at nature, we often have the same experience. Indeed, every page presents
at least one surprise or provocation for the reader to think about.
The motto of the text, die Menschen strken, die Sachen klren, a famous statement by
Hartmut von Hentig on pedagogy, translates as: To fortify people, to clarify things. Clarifying things and adhering only to the truth requires courage, as changing the habits
of thought produces fear, often hidden by anger. But by overcoming our fears we grow
in strength. And we experience intense and beautiful emotions. All great adventures in
life allow this, and exploring motion is one of them. Enjoy it.

preface

Final, unified description of


motion
Adventures: understanding
motion, intense joy with
thinking, calculating
couplings and
masses, catching
a glimpse
of bliss
(vol. VI).

PHYSICS:
Describing motion
with the least action principle.

Quantum
theory with gravity
Adventures: bouncing
neutrons, understanding tree
growth (vol. V).

Classical gravity
Adventures:
climbing, skiing,
space travel,
the wonders of
astronomy and
geology (vol. I).

How do
everyday,
fast and large
things move?

How do small
things move?
What are things?
Special relativity
Adventures: light,
magnetism, length
contraction, time
dilation and
E0 = mc2 (vol. II).
c

h, e, k

Quantum theory
Adventures: death,
reproduction, biology,
chemistry, evolution,
enjoying colours and
art, all high-tech
business, medicine
(vol. IV and V).

Galilean physics, heat and electricity


Adventures: sport, music, sailing, cooking,
describing beauty and understanding its origin
(vol. I), using electricity, light and computers,
understanding the brain and people (vol. III).
F I G U R E 1 A complete map of physics: the connections are dened by the speed of light c, the
gravitational constant G, the Planck constant h, the Boltzmann constant k and the elementary charge e.

Learning widens knowledge, improves intelligence and allows us to discover what kind of
person we can be. Learning from a book, especially one about nature, should be efficient
and enjoyable. The most inefficient and the most tedious learning method is to use a
marker to underline text: it is a waste of time, provides false comfort and makes the text
unreadable. Nobody marking text is learning efficiently or is enjoying it.
In my experience as a student and teacher, one learning method never failed to transform unsuccessful pupils into successful ones: if you read a text for study, summarize
every section you read, in your own words and images, aloud. If you are unable to do
so, read the section again. Repeat this until you can clearly summarize what you read

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Advice for learners

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Quantum field theory


Adventures: building
accelerators, understanding quarks, stars,
bombs and the basis of
life, matter, radiation
(vol. V).

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

General relativity
Adventures: the
night sky, measuring curved space,
exploring black
holes and the
universe, space
and time (vol. II).

Why does motion


occur? What are
space, time and
quantum particles?

preface

in your own words and images, aloud. You can do this alone or with friends, in a room
or while walking. If you do this with everything you read, you will reduce your learning
and reading time significantly, enjoy learning from good texts much more and hate bad
texts much less. Masters of the method can use it even while listening to a lecture, in a
low voice, thus avoiding to ever take notes.
Advice for teachers

Using this book

Feedback and support


This text is and will remain free to download from the internet. I would be delighted to
receive an email from you at fb@motionmountain.net, especially on the following issues:
Challenge 1 s

In order to simplify annotations, the pdf file allows adding yellow sticker notes in Adobe
Reader. Help on the specific points listed on the www.motionmountain.net/help.html
web page are particularly welcome. All feedback will be used to improve the next edition.
On behalf of all readers, thank you in advance for your input. For a particularly useful
contribution you will be mentioned if you want in the acknowledgements, receive a
reward, or both.
Your donation to the charitable, tax-exempt non-profit organisation that produces,
translates and publishes this book series is welcome! For details, see the web page www.
motionmountain.net/donation.html. The German tax office checks the proper use of

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What was unclear and should be improved?


What story, topic, riddle, picture or film did you miss?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Marginal notes refer to bibliographic references, to other pages or to challenge solutions.


In the colour edition, such notes and also the pointers to footnotes and to other websites
are typeset in green. In the free pdf edition, all green links are clickable. The pdf edition
also contains all films; they can be watched in Adobe Reader.
Solutions and hints for challenges are given in the appendix. Challenges are classified
as research level (r), difficult (d), standard student level (s) and easy (e). Challenges for
which no solution has yet been included in the book are marked (ny).
Links on the internet tend to disappear with time. Most links can be recovered via
www.archive.org, which keeps a copy of old internet pages.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

A teacher likes pupils and likes to lead them into exploring the field he chose. His or her
enthusiasm for the job is the key to job satisfaction. If you are a teacher, before the start of
a lesson, picture, feel and tell yourself how you enjoy the topic of the lesson; then picture,
feel and tell yourself how you will lead each of your pupils into enjoying that topic as
much as you do. Do this exercise consciously, every time. You will minimize trouble in
your class and maximize your teaching success.
This book is not written with exams in mind; it is written to make teachers and students understand and enjoy physics, the science of motion.

10

preface

your donation. If you want, your name will be included in the sponsor list. Thank you in
advance for your help, on behalf of all readers across the world.
The pdf version of this book, with embedded films, is available for free at www.
motionmountain.net. The paper edition of this book is available, printed on demand, either in colour or in black and white. It is delivered by mail to any address of your choice
and can be ordered at www.amazon.com or www.createspace.com. And now, enjoy the
reading.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics


copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014
free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Contents

74

The description of electromagnetic field evolu tion


The first field equation of electrodynamics 74 The second field equation of electrodynamics 75 The validity and the essence of Maxwells field equations 77
Colliding charged particles 77 The gauge field the electromagnetic vector potential 79 Energy and momenta of the electromagnetic field 83 The Lagrangian
of electromagnetism 84 The energymomentum tensor and its symmetries of
motion 85 What is a mirror? 86 What is the difference between electric and
magnetic fields? 88 Could electrodynamics be different? 89 The brain: the
toughest challenge for electrodynamics 89 Challenges and fun curiosities about
electrodynamics 91 Summary on electromagnetic field motion 92

93

What is light?
What are electromagnetic waves? 94 Light as an electromagnetic wave 97
Polarization and electromagnetic waves 99 Light and other electromagnetic
waves 102 The slowness of progress in physics 107 Another look at electromagnetic radiation 108 How does the world look when riding on a light beam? 110
Can one touch light? 111 War, light and lies 115 What is colour? 116 Fun
with rainbows 120 What is the speed of light? Again 122 Signals and predictions 126 Aether good-bye 126 Challenges and fun curiosities about light,
polarization and the geometric phase 127 Summary on light 132

133

Images and the eye optics


Ways to produce images 133
Light sources
Why can we see each other? Black bodies and the temperature of light 135 Limits
to the concentration of light 138 Measuring light intensity 139 Other light and
radiation sources 141 Radiation as weapon 141
Images transporting light
Making images with mirrors 143 Does light always travel in a straight line?
Refraction 144 Bending light with tubes fibre optics 151 200 years too late
negative refraction indices 151 Metamaterials 152 Light around corners
diffraction 153 Beating the diffraction limit 155 Other ways to bend light 156
How does one make holograms and other three-dimensional images? 158 Images
through scanning 161 Tomography 164
The eye and the brain: observing images

135

143

166

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L iquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed


Fields: amber, lodestone and mobile phones 16 How can one make lightning? 19
Electric charge 22 Electric field strength 24 Pumping charge 28 What
is electricity? 28 Can we detect the inertia of electricity? 29 Feeling electric
fields 32 Magnets and other magnetic materials 35 Can humans feel magnetic
fields? 37 Magnetism and electricity 40 How can one make a motor? 40
Which currents flow inside magnets? 42 Magnetic fields 43 Electromagnetism 46 The invariants and the Lagrangian of electromagnetic fields 47 The
uses of electromagnetic effects 48 How motors prove relativity to be right 49
Curiosities and fun challenges about things electric and magnetic 51 Hopping
electrons and the biggest disappointment of the television industry 69 How do
nerves work? 71 A summary: three basic facts about electricity 73

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

15

12

contents
Do we see what exists? 166 The human eye 169 How can we make pictures
of the inside of the eye? 171 How to prove youre holy 173 Challenges and fun
curiosities about images and the eye 174 Summary on optics 185

210

Summary and limits of cl assical electrodynamics


Strong fields and gravitation 211 Charges are discrete 211 How fast do charges
move? 212 What happens inside atoms? 213 Challenges and curiosities about
charge discreteness 214

216

The story of the brain


Evolution 217 Children, laws and physics 217
Polymer electronics 220
Why a brain? 222 What is information? 225 What is memory? 226 The
capacity of the brain 229 Curiosities about the brain 231

236

Thought and l anguage


What is language? 236
What is a concept? 240 What are sets? What are
relations? 242 Infinity 244 Functions and structures 246 Numbers 247
Why use mathematics? 252 Is mathematics a language? 252 Curiosities
and fun challenges about mathematics 253

257

Concepts, lies and pat terns of nature


Are physical concepts discovered or created? 258
How do we find physical
patterns and rules? 260
What is a lie? 261
What is a good lie? 262
Is this statement true? A bit about nonsense 266
Curiosities and fun
challenges about lies and nonsense 267
Observations
Have enough observations been recorded? 272
Are all physical observables
known? 273 Do observations take time? 274 Is induction a problem in
physics? 275
The quest for precision and its implications
What are interactions? No emergence 277 What is existence? 278 Do
things exist? 279 Does the void exist? 280
Is nature infinite? 282 Is
the universe a set? 283 Does the universe exist? 284 What is creation? 285
Is nature designed? 287
What is a description? 288
Reason, purpose
and explanation 289 Unification and demarcation 290 Pigs, apes and the
anthropic principle 291 Does one need cause and effect in explanations? 292
Is consciousness required? 293 Curiosity 294 Courage 296

271

277

298

10 Cl assical physics in a nu tshell


What can move? 298 Properties of classical motion 299 The future of planet
Earth 300 The essence of classical physics the infinitely small and the lack
of surprises 302 Summary: Why have we not yet reached the top of the mountain? 303

305

a Units, measurements and constants


SI units 305 The meaning of measurement 308 Precision and accuracy of measurements 308 Limits to precision 310 Physical constants 310 Useful num-

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Electromagnetic effects
Is lightning a discharge? Electricity in the atmosphere 186 Does ball lightning exist? 190 Does gravity make charges radiate? 191 Planetary magnetic
fields 192 Levitation 193 Matter, levitation and electromagnetic effects 197
Challenges and fun curiosities about electromagnetic effects 205

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

186

contents

13
bers 318

319

Challenge hints and solu tions

338

Biblio graphy

364

Credits
Acknowledgements 364 Film credits 365 Image credits 365

368

Name index

378

Subject index

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics


copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014
free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Light, Charges and Brains

In our quest to learn how things move,


the experience of hiking and other motion
leads us to discover that images are produced by charges,
that charges move, accumulate and interact,
and that there is a smallest charge in nature.
We understand what love has to do with magnets and amber,
why the brain is such an interesting device,
and what distinguishes a good from a bad lie.

Chapter 1

L IQUI D E L ECTRIC IT Y, INVISI BLE


FIELDS AND MA XIMUM SPEED

Challenge 2 e

* The photograph of a circular rainbow on page 14 was taken in 2006 from the Telstra Tower in Canberra
( Oat Vaiyaboon).

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Ref. 1

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Vol. I, page 203

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Vol. II, page 79

hat is light? The study of relativity left us completely in the dark, even though
e had embarked in it precisely to find an answer to that question. True,
e have learned how the motion of light compares with that of objects. We
also learned that light is a moving entity that cannot be stopped, that light provides the
speed limit for any type of energy, and that light is our measurement standard for speed.
However, we havent learned anything about the nature of light itself, nor about colours,
nor about how rain drops,* and other matter produces them.
A second question is open: what is contact? We still do not know. In our exploration
of relativity we only learned that truly mechanical interactions do not exist. We learned
that all interactions, also contact, are due to exchange of particles. But which ones? And
how can motion and levitation occur without any material contact?
A third question also arises: how do we sense contact or touch? What are sensors and
how is their output, the data, processed in the brain or in machines? Not only the brain,
also all other data procesing systems use electricity. What is data and what is electricity?
The answer to the questions about the nature of light, contact and the brain is not
related to gravitation. If we make a list of motors found in this world, we notice that
gravitation hardly describes any of them. Neither the motion of sea waves, fire and earthquakes, nor that of a gentle breeze is caused by gravity. The same applies to the motion of
muscles. Have you ever listened to your own heart beat with a stethoscope? (Or use, as
many medical doctors do now, an MP3 player to record your heart beat.) Without having
done so, you cannot claim to have experienced the mystery of motion. Your heart has
about 3000 million beats in your lifetime. Then it stops.
It was one of the most astonishing discoveries of science that heart beats, sea waves
and most other cases of everyday motion, as well as the nature of light and thought itself,
are connected to observations made thousands of years ago using two strange stones.
These stones show that all those examples of motion that are called mechanical in everyday life are, without exception, of electrical origin.
In particular, the solidity, the softness and the impenetrability of matter are due to
internal electricity. But also the emission of light, the formation of colours and the working of our nerves and brains are due to electrical processes. As these aspects are part of
everyday life, we can leave aside all complications due to gravity and curved space-time.
The most productive way to study electrical motion is to start, as in the case of gravity,

16

1 electricit y and fields

F I G U R E 2 Objects surrounded by elds: amber (c. 1 cm), lodestone (c. 1 cm) and mobile phone
(c. 10 cm) ( Philips).

water
pipe

with those types of motion which are generated without any contact between the bodies
involved. This can happen in three ways.
Fields: amber, lodestone and mobile phones

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Challenge 3 s

You can always surprise children with the effect shown in Figure 3: a comb rubbed on
wool deviates running tap water. The same effect can be produced with an air-filled rubber balloon rubbed on wool. Everybody can deviate water streams without any contact.
The Greeks had already observed this effect a long time age. In fact, the story of electricity starts with trees. Trees have a special relation to electricity. When a tree is cut, a
viscous resin appears. With time it solidifies and, after millions of years, it forms amber.
When amber is rubbed with a cat fur, it acquires the ability to attract small objects, such
as saw dust or pieces of paper. This was already known to Thales of Miletus, one of the
original seven sages, in the sixth century bce. The same observation can be made with
many other polymer combinations, for example with combs and hair, with soles of the
shoe on carpets, and with dust and a cathode ray tube inside an old television. Another
interesting effect can be observed when a rubbed comb is put near a burning candle.
(Can you imagine what happens?)
Another part of the story of electricity involves lodestone, an iron mineral found in certain caves around the world, e.g. in a region (still) called Magnesia in the Greek province

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 3 How to amaze kids, especially in dry weather (photo Robert Fritzius).

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

comb
rubbed
on wool

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

Ref. 2

17

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics


copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014
free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

of Thessalia, and in some regions in central Asia. When two stones of this mineral are put
near each other, they attract or repel each other, depending on their relative orientation.
In addition, lodestone attracts objects made of cobalt, nickel or iron.
Today we also find various small objects in nature with more sophisticated properties,
such as the one shown on the right of Figure 2. Some of these objects allow you to talk
with far away friends, others unlock car doors, still others enable you to switch on a
television.
In short, in nature there are situations where bodies exert influence on others at a
distance. The space surrounding a body exerting such an influence is said to contain a
field. A (physical) field is thus an entity that manifests itself by accelerating other bodies
in a given region of space. A field is space that changes momenta. If you prefer, a field is
space that exerts forces. Or again, a field is space with some extra structure. Despite this
extra structure, fields, like space, are invisible.
The field surrounding the mineral found in Magnesia is called a magnetic field and
the stones are called magnets. The field around amber called in Greek, from a
root meaning brilliant, shining is called an electric field. The name is due to a proposal
by the famous English physician and part-time physicist William Gilbert (15441603).
Objects surrounded by a permanent electric field are called electrets. Electrets are far less
common than magnets; among others, they are used in certain loudspeaker systems.
The field around a mobile phone is called a radio field or, as we will see later, an electromagnetic field. In contrast to the previous fields, it oscillates over time. We will find
out later that many other objects are surrounded by such fields, though these are often
very weak. Objects that emit oscillating fields, such as mobile phones, are called radio
transmitters or electromagnetic emitters. Certain radio tranmitters, as we will see, are
already familiar from everyday life: lamps and lasers.
Experiments show that fields have no mass and no material support. Fields influence
bodies over a distance. Fields are invisible. To make them imaginable, we just need to
colour them. Some ways to colour electric fields are shown in Figure 4. (Additional visualizations for magnetic and radio fields follow below.) These figures are the best way
to visualize electric fields: also the man who first proposed the field concept, Michael
Faraday, used such images.
Exploring such images, we note that one can visualize electric fields either as a tiny
vector attached to every point of space, or as a bundle of lines. Both visualizations are
useful. We will even encounter additional visualizations below.
For a long time, electric, magnetic and radio fields were rarely noticed in everyday life.
Indeed, in the past, most countries had laws that did not allow producing such fields, nor
building mobile phones or garage openers. Still today, laws severely restrict the properties
of machines that use and produce such fields. These laws require that for any device
that moves, produces sound, or creates moving pictures, fields need to remain inside the
device. Also for this reason a magician moving an object on a table via a hidden magnet
still surprises and entertains his audience. To feel the fascination of fields more strongly,
a deeper look into a few experimental results is worthwhile.

18

1 electricit y and fields

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics


copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

using computer graphics and using seeds in oil. Top: the eld around a point or spherical charge;
second row: two or three charges of different signs; third row: two charges of the same sign; bottom: a
charge in an external eld E, and the eld between two plates. The charge will feel a force F directed
along the so-called electric eld lines; the density of the lines gives the intensity of the eld and thus the
strength of the force ( MIT, Eli Sidman, MIT).

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F I G U R E 4 Visualizing what is invisible: a simple way to visualize electric elds as space with a structure,

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

19

F I G U R E 5 Lightning: a picture taken


with a moving camera, showing its
multiple strokes ( Steven Horsburgh).

Ref. 4

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* William Thomson (18241907), important physicist and professor at Glasgow University. He worked on
the determination of the age of the Earth, showing that it was much older than 6000 years, as several sects
believed, but also (falsely) maintained that the Earth was much younger than geologists and Darwin (correctly) had deduced. He strongly influenced the development of the theory of magnetism and electricity, the
description of the aether, and thermodynamics. He propagated the use of the term energy as it is used today, instead of the confusing older terms. He was one of the last scientists to propagate mechanical analogies
for the explanation of phenomena, and thus strongly opposed Maxwells description of electromagnetism.
It was mainly for this reason that he did not receive a Nobel Prize. He was also one of the minds behind the
laying of the first transatlantic telegraphic cable. Victorian and religious to his bones, when he was knighted,
he chose the name of a small brook near his home as his new name; thus he became Baron Kelvin of Largs.
Therefore the unit of temperature obtained its name from a small Scottish river.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 3

Everybody has seen a lightning flash or has observed the effect it can have on striking a
tree. Obviously lightning is a moving phenomenon. Photographs such as that of Figure 5
show that the tip of a lightning flash advance with an average speed of around 600 km/s.
But what is moving? To find out, we have to find a way of making lightning for ourselves.
In 1995, the car company Opel accidentally rediscovered an old and simple method of
achieving this.
Opel engineers had inadvertently built a spark generating mechanism into their cars;
when filling the petrol tank, sparks were generated, which sometimes lead to the explosion of the fuel at the petrol station. Opel had to recall 2 million vehicles.
What had the engineers done wrong? They had unwittingly copied the conditions for
a electrical device which anyone can build at home and which was originally invented
by William Thomson:* the Kelvin generator. Repeating his experiment today, we would
take two water taps, four empty bean or coffee cans, of which two have been opened at
both sides, some nylon rope and some metal wire. Putting this all together as shown in
Figure 6, and letting the water flow, we find a strange effect: large sparks periodically
jump between the two copper wires at the point where they are nearest to each other,

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

How can one make lightning?

20

1 electricit y and fields

nylon ropes

water pipe
or tank

nylon ropes

metal cylinders

bang!
metal wires
metal cans

Challenge 4 s

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

* In fact, the fashion still goes on. Today, there are many additional ways to produces sparks or even arcs,
i.e., sustained sparks. There is a sizeable subculture of people who build such high voltage generators as a
hobby at home; see, for example, the website www.kronjaeger.com/hv. There is also a sizeable subculture of
people who do this professionally, paid by tax money: the people who build particle accelerators.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 5

giving out loud bangs. Can you guess what condition for the flow has to be realized for
this to work? And what did Opel do to repair the cars they recalled?
If we stop the water flowing just before the next spark is due, we find that both buckets
are able to attract sawdust and pieces of paper. The generator thus does the same that
rubbing amber does, just with more bang for the buck(et). Both buckets, and the attached
metal pieces, are thus surrounded by electric fields. The fields increase with time, until the
spark jumps. Just after the spark, the buckets are (almost) without surrounding electric
field. Obviously, the flow of water somehow collects something on each bucket; today
we call this electric charge. We also say that such bodies are electrically charged. This and
other experiments also show that charge can flow in metals. When the electric fields are
high enough, charge can also flow through air, leading to sparks or lightning.
We also find that the two buckets are always surrounded by two different types of electric fields: bodies that are attracted by one bucket are repelled by the other. The discovery
that there are two different types of electric charge is due to the French universal genius
Charles Dufay (16981739). In a long and careful series of experiments he confirmed that
all materials he could get hold of can be charged electrically, and that all charges can be
classified into two types. He was the first to show that charged bodies of the same charge
repel each other, and that bodies of different charge attract each other. He showed in detail
that all experiments on electricity can be explained with these statements. Dufay called
the two types of charges vitreous and resinous. Unfortunately, Dufay died at a young
age. Nevertheless, his results spread quickly. A few years later, Georg Bose used them to
develop the first electrifying machine, which then made the exploration of sparks and
the science of electricity fashionable across Europe.*

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 6 A simple Kelvin generator; the one on the right lights a uorescent light bulb using dripping
water (photograph Harald Chmela).

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

pendulum
with metal
ball

21

on the roof

in the hall

F I G U R E 7 Franklins personal lightning rod a copy of Gordons

in the ground

* The details of how lightning is generated and how it propagates are still a topic of research. An introduction
is given on page 186.

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Challenge 6 s

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 6

Twenty years after Dufay, in the 1750s, the US politician and part-time physicist Benjamin Franklin (17061790) proposed to call the electricity created on a glass rod rubbed
with a dry cloth positive instead of vitreous, and that on a piece of amber negative instead
of resinous. Thus, instead of two types of electricity, he proposed that there is really only
one type, and that bodies can either have too much or too little of it. With the new terms,
bodies with charges of the same sign repel each other, bodies with opposite charges attract each other; charges of opposite sign flowing together cancel each other out. Large
absolute values of charge imply large charge effects. It took over a hundred years before
these concepts were accepted unanimously.
In summary, electric effects are due to the flow of charges. Now, all flows take time. How
fast is electricity? A simple way to measure the speed of electricity is to produce a small
spark at one end of a long metal wire, and to observe how long it takes until the spark
appears at the other end of the wire. In practice, the two sparks are almost simultaneous;
the speed one measures is much higher than everything else we observe in our environment. How can we measure the time nevertheless? And why did different researchers get
very different speed values in this experiment? The result of these experiments is that the
speed of electricity is typically a large percentage of the speed of light.
Sparks, electric arcs and lightning are similar. Of course, one has to check whether natural lightning is actually electrical in origin. In 1752, experiments performed in France,
following a suggestion by Benjamin Franklin, published in London in 1751, showed that
one can indeed draw electricity from a thunderstorm via a long rod.* Thunderstorm
clouds are surrounded by electric fields. These French experiments made Franklin famous worldwide; they were also the start of the use of lightning rod all over the world. Later,
Franklin had a lightning rod built through his own house, but of a somewhat unusual
type, as shown in Figure 7. This device, invented by Andrew Gordon, is called an electric
chime. Can you guess what it did in his hall during bad weather, all parts being made of
metal, and why? (Do not repeat this experiment; any device attached to a lightning rod
can kill.)

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 5 s

electric chime is one of the many experiments that shows


strikingly that charge can ow.

22

1 electricit y and fields

F I G U R E 8 A simple set-up to

conrm electric charge


conservation: if rubbed fur is
moved from the rst pot to the
second, the charge taken away
from the rst pot is transferred to
the second, as shown by the two
electrometers ( Wolfgang
Rueckner).

i.e., by comparing its momentum change with the momentum change of the reference
charge. Charge thus determines the motion of bodies in electric fields in the same way
that mass determines the motion of bodies in gravitational fields. Charge is therefore the
second intrinsic property of bodies that we discover in our walk.
In practice, electric charge is measured with electrometers. A few such devices are

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Because all experiments with electric charge can be explained by calling the two charges
positive and negative, we deduce that some bodies have more, and some less charge than
an uncharged, neutral body. Electric charges thus only flow when two differently charged
bodies are brought into contact. Now, if charge can flow and accumulate, we must be able
to somehow measure its amount. Obviously, the amount of electric charge on a body,
usually abbreviated q, must be defined via the influence the body, say a piece of sawdust,
feels when subjected to a field. Charge is thus defined by comparing it to a standard
reference charge. For a charged body of mass m accelerated in a field, its charge q is
determined by the relation
q
dp/dt
,
(1)
=
qref dpref /dt

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Electric charge

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

In summary, electric fields start at bodies, provided they are charged. Charging can
be achieved by rubbing and other processes. There are two types of charge, negative and
positive. Charge can flow: it is then called an electric current. The worst conductors of
current are polymers; they are called insulators or dielectrics. A charge put on an insulator
remains at the place where it was put. In contrast, metals are good conductors; a charge
placed on a conductor spreads all over its surface. The best conductors are silver and
copper. This is the reason that at present, after two hundred years of use of electricity, the
highest concentration of copper in the world is below the surface of Manhattan. Charges
can flow through air if the electric field is strong enough; this is a spark or, when the
spark is large, a lightning bolt.

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

23

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

high precision Dolezalek electrometer, the Ampullae of Lorenzini of a shark, and a modern digital
electrometer ( Harald Chmela, Klaus Jost at www.jostimages.com, Advantest).
TA B L E 1 Properties of classical electric charge: a scalar density.

Physical
propert y

M at h e m at i c a l
name

Definition

Can be distinguished
Can be ordered
Can be compared
Can change gradually
Can be added
Can be separated
Do not change

distinguishability
sequence
measurability
continuity
accumulability
separability
conservation

element of set
order
metricity
completeness
additivity
positive or negative
invariance

Page 242
Vol. IV, page 211
Vol. V, page 340
Vol. V, page 349
Vol. I, page 77

q = const

shown in Figure 9. The main experimental properties of electric charge that are discovered when experimenting with electrometers are listed in Table 1.
The unit of charge, the coulomb, is defined through a standard flow through metal
wires, as explained in Appendix A. This is possible because all experiments show that
charge is conserved, that it flows, and thus that it can accumulate. In other words, if the

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Electric
charges

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 9 Various electrometers: a self-made electrometer based on a jam pot, an ancient (opened)

24

1 electricit y and fields

TA B L E 2 Values of electrical charge observed in nature.

Charge

Smallest measured non-vanishing charge


Charge per bit in computer memory
Charge in small capacitor
Charge flow in average lightning stroke
Charge stored in a fully charged car battery
Charge of planet Earth
Charge separated by modern power station in one year
Total charge of positive (or negative) sign observed in universe
Total charge observed in universe

1.6 1019 C
down to 1015 C
107 C
1 C to 100 C
0.2 MC
1 MC
3 1011 C
10601 C
0C

Charges produce attraction and repulsion on other charges. Equivalently, charges change
momenta; charges exert forces on other charges. This happens over large distances. Experiments that explore energy and momentum conservation show that the best description of these interactions is as told so far: a charge produces a field, the field then acts on
a second charge.
Experiments show that the electric field forms lines in space. As a consequence, the
electric field behaves like a small arrow fixed at each point x in space. Electric fields are
described by a direction and a magnitude. The local direction of the field is given by the
local direction of the field line the tangent of the field line. The local magnitude of the

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Electric field strength

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

electric charge of a physical system changes, the reason always is that charge is flowing
into or out of the system. This can be checked easily with two metal pots connected
to two electrometers, as shown in Figure 8. Charge thus behaves like a fluid substance.
Therefore we are forced to use for its description a scalar quantity q, which can take
positive, vanishing, or negative values on a physical body.
Describing charge as a scalar quantity reproduces the behaviour of electrical charge
in all everyday situations. However, as in the case of all previously encountered classical
concepts, some of the experimental results for electrical charge in everyday situations
from Table 1 will turn out to be only approximate. More precise experiments will require
a revision of the idea of continuous change of charge value. Nevertheless, no counterexample to charge conservation has as yet been observed.
In summary, electric charge is a scalar quantity that describes the origin of electric fields.
Electric charge is conserved. There is on way to destroy or create electric charge. We mentioned above that objects without electric charge are called neutral. Also neutral bodies
are influenced by electric fields. This happens because a charged object that is brought
near a neutral body polarizes it. Electrical polarization is the separation of the positive
and negative charges onto different regions of a body. For this reason, neutral objects,
such as hair or a water stream, are usually attracted to a charged body, such as a rubbed
comb. Both insulators and conductors can be polarized; and polarization occurs for single molecules, everyday bodies and whole stars.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 7

O b s e r va t i o n

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

25

field is given by the local density of the field lines. The direction and the magnitude do
not depend on the observer. In short, the electric field E(x) is a vector field. Experiments
show that it is best defined by the relation
qE(x) =

dp(x)
dt

(2)

taken at every point in space x. The definition of the electric field is thus based on how
it moves charges. In general, the electric field is a vector
E(x) = (Ex , E y , Ez )
Challenge 7 e

Challenge 8 s

E(r) =

Challenge 10 s

where

1
= 9.0 GV m/C .
40

(4)

Later we will extend the relation for a charge in motion. The bizarre proportionality constant, built around the so-called permittivity of free space 0 , is due to the historical way
the unit of charge was defined first.** The essential point of the formula is the decrease of
the field with the square of the distance; can you imagine the origin of this dependence?
A simple way to picture Coulombs formula is illustrated in Figure 10.
The two previous equations allow us to write the interaction between two charged
bodies as
dp
dp1
1 q1 q2 r
=
= 2 ,
(5)
2
dt
40 r r
dt
* Charles-Augustin de Coulomb (b. 1736 Angoulme, d. 1806 Paris), French engineer and physicist. His
careful experiments on electric charges provided a firm basis for the study of electricity.
** Other definitions of this and other proportionality constants to be encountered later are possible,
leading to unit systems different from the SI system used here. The SI system is presented in detail in
Appendix A. Among the older competitors, the Gaussian unit system often used in theoretical calculations,
the HeavisideLorentz unit system, the electrostatic unit system and the electromagnetic unit system are
the most important ones.

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Ref. 8

1 Q r
40 r 2 r

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

and is measured in multiples of the unit N/C or V/m.


The definition of the electric field assumes that the test charge q is so small that it does
not disturb the field E. We sweep this issue under the carpet for the time being. This is
a drastic move: we ignore quantum theory and all quantum effects in this way; we come
back to it below.
The definition of the electric field also assumes that space-time is flat, and it ignores
all issues due to space-time curvature.
By the way, does the definition of electric field just given assume a charge speed that
is far less than that of light?
To describe the motion due to electricity completely, we need a relation explaining
how charges produce electric fields. This relation was established with precision (but not
for the first time) during the French Revolution by Charles-Augustin de Coulomb, on
his private estate.* He found that around any small-sized or any spherical charge Q at
rest there is an electric field. At a position r, the electric field E is given by

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Page 212

(3)

26

1 electricit y and fields

TA B L E 3 Some observed electric elds.

O b s e r va t i o n

Electric field

Field 1 m away from an electron in vacuum


Field values sensed by sharks

Challenge 9 s

Cosmic noise
Field of a 100 W FM radio transmitter at 100 km distance
Field inside conductors, such as copper wire
Field just beneath a high power line
Field of a GSM antenna at 90 m
Field inside a typical home
Field of a 100 W bulb at 1 m distance
Ground field in Earths atmosphere
Field inside thunder clouds
Maximum electric field in air before sparks appear
Electric fields in biological membranes
Electric fields inside capacitors
Electric fields in petawatt laser pulses
Electric fields in U91+ ions, at nucleus
Maximum practical electric field in vacuum, limited by electron
pair production
Maximum possible electric field in nature (corrected Planck electric field c 4 /4Ge)

10 V/m
0.5 mV/m
0.1 V/m
0.1 to 1 V/m
0.5 V/m
1 to 10 V/m
50 V/m
100 to 300 V/m
up to over 100 kV/m
1 to 3 MV/m
10 MV/m
up to 1 GV/m
10 TV/m
1 EV/m
1.3 EV/m

down to 0.5 V/m

2R
R
A

4A

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F I G U R E 10 A visualization of Coulombs formula and Gauss law.

9A

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

3R

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

1.9 1062 V/m

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

27

TA B L E 4 Properties of the classical electric eld: a (polar) vector at every point in space.

Electric
fields can

Physical
propert y

M at h e m at i c a l
name

Definition

Attract bodies

accelerate
charges
accelerate
charges
distinguishability
continuum

coupling

equation (4)

coupling

equation (4)

element of set
real vector space

Page 242

Repel bodies
Be distinguished
Change gradually

Vol. I, page 77, Vol. V,


page 349

direction

Be compared
Be added
Have defined angles
Exceed any limit
Change direction under
reflection
Keep direction under time
reversal

measurability
additivity
direction
infinity
polarity

vector space,
dimensionality
metricity
vector space
Euclidean vector space
unboundedness
parity-odd vector

Vol. I, page 77
Vol. V, page 340
Vol. I, page 77
Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Vol. I, page 77
Page 243

time-even vector

closed surface

E dA =

Q
.
0

(6)

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where dp is the momentum change, and r is the vector connecting the two centres
of mass. This famous expression for electrostatic attraction and repulsion, also due to
Coulomb, is valid only for charged bodies that are either of small size or spherical, and
most of all, only for bodies that are at rest with respect to each other and to the observer.
This description defines the field of electrostatics.
Electric fields accelerate charges. As a result, in everyday life, electric fields have two
main properties: they contain energy and they can polarize bodies. The energy content
is due to the electrostatic interaction between charges. The strength of this interaction is
considerable. For example, it is the basis for the force of our muscles. Muscular force is
a macroscopic effect of Coulombs relation (5). Another example is the material strength
of steel or diamond. As we will discover, all atoms are held together by electrostatic attraction. To convince yourself of the strength of electrostatic attraction, answer the following: What is the force between two boxes with a gram of protons each, located on the
two poles of the Earth? Try to guess the result before you calculate the astonishing value.
Coulombs relation for the field around a charge can be rephrased in a way that helps
to generalize it to non-spherical bodies. Take a closed surface, i.e., a surface than encloses
a certain volume. Then the integral of the electric field over this surface, the electric flux,
is the enclosed charge Q divided by 0 :

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 11 s

Point somewhere

28

Challenge 12 s

Challenge 13 e
Vol. V, page 114
Challenge 14 s

1 electricit y and fields

This mathematical relation, called Gausss law,* from the result of Coulomb. (Note that
in the simplified form given here, it is valid only for static situations.) Since inside conductors the electrical field is zero, Gausss law implies, for example, that if a charge q is
surrounded by an uncharged metal sphere, the outer surface of the metal sphere shows
the same charge q.
Do uncharged bodies attract one other? In first approximation they do not. But when
the question is investigated more precisely, we will find that they can attract one other.
Can you find the conditions for this to happen? In fact, the conditions are quite important, as our own bodies, which are made of neutral molecules, are held together in this
way.
Pumping charge

What is electricity?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

The answer to this question is: Electricity is the name for a field of inquiry, but not the
name for any specific observation or effect. Electricity is not a specific term; sometimes it
is used to refer to electric current and its effects, sometimes to observations about of electric charge, sometimes to the effects of electric fields. In fact the vocabulary issue hides
a deeper question that remains unanswered at the end of the twentieth century: what
is the nature of electric charge? In order to solve this issue, we start with the following
question.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 15 s

Owing to the high strength of electromagnetic interactions, separating charges is not an


easy task. This is the reason that electrical effects have only been commonly used for
about a hundred years. Humanity had to wait for practical and efficient devices to be
invented for separating charges and putting them into motion: to use electric effects, we
need charge pumps. Some types are shown in Figure 11.
Of course, every charge pump requires energy. Batteries in mobile phones and the ion
channels in living cells use chemical energy to do the trick. Thermoelectric elements, as
used in some watches, use the temperature difference between the wrist and the air to
separate charges; solar cells use light, and dynamos or Kelvin generators use kinetic energy. Can you explain whether batteries or any other of these devices sources of charges?

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liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

29

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Can we detect the inertia of electricity?


If electric charge really is something flowing through metals, we should be able to observe the effects shown in Figure 12: electric charge should fall, should have inertia and

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

* Carl-Friedrich Gau (b. 1777 Braunschweig, d. 1855 Gttingen), German mathematician. He was together
with the Leonhard Euler, the most important mathematician of all times. A famous child prodigy, when he
was 19 years old, he constructed the regular heptadecagon with compass and ruler (see www.mathworld.
wolfram.com/Heptadecagon.html). He was so proud of this result that he put a drawing of the figure on his
tomb. Gauss produced many results in number theory, topology, statistics, algebra, complex numbers and
differential geometry which are part of modern mathematics and bear his name. Among his many accomplishments, he produced a theory of curvature and developed non-Euclidean geometry. He also worked on
electromagnetism and astronomy.
Gauss was a difficult character, worked always for himself, and did not found a school. He published
little, as his motto was: pauca sed matura. As a consequence, when another mathematician published a new
result, he regularly produced a notebook in which he had noted the very same result already years before.
His notebooks are now available online at www.sub.uni-goettingen.de.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 11 Various types of charge pumps: a bicycle dynamo, an alternator in a power station, a


Wimshurst machine, an electric eel, a voltaic cell, a leaf and a solar cell ( Wikimedia, Q-Cells).

30

1 electricit y and fields

If electric charge in metals moves


like a fluid, it should:

fall under gravity

be subject to centrifugation
a

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

resist acceleration

lead to recoil just after


switching on a currrent

spray when pumped


strongly
q

F I G U R E 12

Consequences of the
ow of electricity.

Ref. 9

for all metals, with small variations in the second digit. The minus sign is due to the
definition of charge. In short, electrical charge in metals has mass, though a very small
one.
If electric charge has mass, whenever we switch on an electrical current, we get a recoil.
This simple effect can easily be measured and confirms the mass to charge ratio just given.
Also, the emission of current into air or into vacuum is observed; in fact, every cathode

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Ref. 10

should be separable from matter. Indeed, each of these effects has been observed. For
example, when a long metal rod is kept vertically, we can measure an electrical potential
difference, a voltage, between the top and the bottom. In other words, we can measure
the weight of electricity in this way. Similarly, we can measure the potential difference
between the ends of an accelerated rod. Alternatively, we can measure the potential difference between the centre and the rim of a rotating metal disc. The last experiment was,
in fact, the way in which the ratio q/m for currents in metals was first measured with
precision. The result is
q/m 1.8 1011 C/kg
(7)

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

prevent free charges


from falling through
a thin hollow tube

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

Ref. 11

Challenge 16 e
Ref. 12
Challenge 17 s

Challenge 18 e

Ref. 14

* The name electron is due to George Stoney. Electrons are the smallest and lightest charges moving in
metals; they are, usually but not always the atoms of electricity for example in metals. Their charge
is small, 0.16 aC, so that flows of charge typical of everyday life consist of large numbers of electrons; as a
result, electrical charge behaves like a continuous fluid. The particle itself was discovered and presented in
1897 by the Prussian physicist Johann Emil Wiechert (18611928) and, independently, three months later,
by the British physicist Joseph John Thomson (18561940).

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The particles with this property are called electrons. Other types of charges, with different
charge-to-mass ratio, also exist in nature. Examples are the ions found in batteries and

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 13

ray tube inside an old television uses this principle to generate the beam producing the
picture. It works best for metal objects with sharp, pointed tips. The rays created this way
we could say that they are free electricity are called cathode rays. Within a few per
cent, they show the same mass to charge ratio as expression (7). This correspondence
thus shows that charges move almost as freely in metals as in air; this is the reason that
metals are such good conductors.
If electric charge falls inside vertical metal rods, we can make the astonishing deduction that cathode rays as we will see later, they consist of free electrons* should not
be able to fall through a vertical metal tube. This is due to exact compensation of the
acceleration by the electrical field generated by the displaced electricity in the tube and
the acceleration of gravity. Thus electrons should not be able to fall through a long thin
cylinder. This would not be the case if electricity in metals did not behave like a fluid. The
experiment has indeed been performed, and a reduction of the acceleration of free fall
for electrons of 90 % has been observed. Can you imagine why the ideal value of 100 %
is not achieved?
If electric current behaves like a liquid, we should be able to measure its speed. The
first to do so, in 1834, was Charles Wheatstone. In a famous experiment, he used a wire
of a quarter of a mile length, to produce three sparks: one at the start, one at the middle,
and one at the end. He then mounted a rapidly moving mirror on a mechanical watch.
By noting how much the three spark images were shifted against each other on a screen,
he determined the speed to be 0.45 Gm/s, though with a large error. Latter, more precise
measurements showed that the speed is always below 0.3 Gm/s, and that it depends on
the metal and the type of insulation of the wire. The high value of the speed convinced
many people to use electricity for transmitting messages. In fact, these experiments measure the signal speed of electromagnetic waves carried by metal wires. For the actual
speed of electric charges, see below. A modern version of the signal speed experiment,
for computer fans, uses the ping command from the UNIX operating system. The ping
command measures the time for a computer signal to reach another computer and return back. If the cable length between two computers is known, the signal speed can be
deduced. Just try.
As a note, the speed of electricity is too slow for many people. Modern computers that
are connected to stock exchanges are located as near as possible to the stock exchange,
because the time advantage the short communication distance provides is essential for
getting a good financial performance in certain trading markets.
Experiments with charges ejected from metals show that they have a charge to mass
ratio of
q/m = 1.758 820 150(44) 1011 C/kg
(8)

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Page 212

31

32

1 electricit y and fields


TA B L E 5 Some observed electric current values.

O b s e r va t i o n

Current

Smallest current ever measured (for one


moving electron)
Human nerve signals
Lethal current for humans

3 aA

1.5 YA

TA B L E 6 Some sensors for electrical current.

Sensor

Range

Conventional 20 euro multimeter


Feeling threshold
Reversible muscle contraction
without danger

voltage drop over resistor


human nerve
human nerve

Rhythm change

human heart

Strong muscle contraction with


some damage

human nerve

up to c. 3 A
felt from 0.1 mA upwards
up to 10 mA over long
times, or up to 200 mA for
at most 10 ms
heart stops when about
20 mA flow through it
up to 100 mA over long
times, or up to 1 A for at
most 200 ms
from 1 A
from 1 kA
up to 1 A and 500 V

Smoke emission, strong burns


human flesh
Fire
trees
Electric eel Electrophorus electricus bult-in

Feeling electric fields


Why is electricity dangerous to humans? The main reason is that the human body is controlled by electric wires itself. As a result, electricity applied to human bodies from the
outside interferes with the internal signals. This has been known since 1789. In that year

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

leaves, the muons found in cosmic rays, and the mesons produced in particle accelerators.
We will meet these particles later in our adventure.
In summary, experiments show that all charges have mass. And like all massive bodies,
charges move slower than light. Charge is a property of matter; images and light have no
charge.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Measurement

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Current drawn by a train engine


Current in a lightning bolt
Highest current produced by humans
Current inside the Earth, at the origin of its
magnetic field
Maximum possible current in nature (corrected Planck electric current e c 5 /4G )

20 A
as low as 20 mA, typically
100 mA
600 A
10 to 100 kA
20 MA
c. 100 MA

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

Page 71

Ref. 15

Ref. 15

Page 105

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* It took until the year 2000 for technology to make use of the same effect. Nowadays, airbag sensors in cars
often use electric fields to sense whether the person sitting in the seat is a child or an adult, thus changing
the way that the airbag behaves in an accident.
** Though a few land animas that swim a lot under water have electric field sensors.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 19 r

the Italian medical doctor Luigi Galvani (17371798) discovered that electrical current
makes the muscles of a dead animal contract. The famous first experiment used frog
legs: when electricity was applied to them, they twitched violently. Subsequent investigations confirmed that all nerves make use of electrical signals. Using electricity, one can
make fresh corpses move, for example. Nerves are the control wires of animals. We will
explore nerves in more detail below.
Being electrically controlled, all mammals can sense strong electric fields. Humans
can sense fields as low as 10 kV/m, when hair stands on end. In contrast, several animals can sense much weaker electric (and magnetic) fields. Sharks, for example, can
detect fields down to 0.5 V/m using special sensors, the Ampullae of Lorenzini, which
are found around their mouth. Sharks use them to detect the field created by prey moving in water; this allows them to catch their prey even in the dark. The elephantnose fish
(Gnathonemus petersii), the salamander and the platypus (Ornithorhyncus anatinus), the
famous duck-billed mammal, can also sense electric fields, , but achieve only sensitivities of the order of mV/m. Like sharks, they use this ability to detect prey in water which
is too muddy to see through. The muscles in living prey generate electric fields. This
method is also used by the elephantnose fish (Gnathonemus petersii). The achieved sensitivity is below 2 mV/m. Certain fish, the so-called weakly-electric fish, even generate a
weak field in order to achieve better prey detection.* In fact, several electric fish use timevarying electric dipole fields to communicate! They tell each other their species, their sex,
their identity, and communicate about courtship, aggression, appeasement and dangers.
The frequencies they use are in the range between a few and 200 Hz, and the fields are
dipole fields created between the anterior and posterior sections of their bodies.
No land animal has special sensors for electric fields, because any electric field in air
is strongly damped when it encounters a water-filled animal body.** Indeed, the usual
atmosphere has a low, vertical electric field of around 100 V/m; inside the human body
this field is damped to the V/m range, which is far less than an animals internal electric
fields. In other words, humans do not have sensors for low electric fields because they are
land animals. (Do humans have the ability to sense electric fields in water? Nobody seems
to know.) However, there a few exceptions. You might know that some older people can
sense approaching thunderstorms in their joints. This is due the coincidence between the
electromagnetic field frequency emitted by thunderclouds around 100 kHz and the
resonant frequency of nerve cell membranes.
The water content of the human body also means that the electric fields in air that are
found in nature are rarely dangerous to humans. But whenever humans consciously sense
electric fields, such as when high voltage makes their hair stand on end, the situation is
potentially dangerous.
The high impedance of air also means that, in the case of time-varying electromagnetic fields, humans are much more prone to be affected by the magnetic component
than by the electric component.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 16

33

34

1 electricit y and fields

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics


copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014
free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

F I G U R E 13 Various types of magnets and effective magnets: the needle in a compass, some horseshoe
magnets, two galaxies, the magnetic organ of a dove, the Earth, a lifting magnet, and the Sun.
( Wikimedia, Shambhavi, Anthony Ayiomamitis, NASA).

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

35

TA B L E 7 Searches for magnetic monopoles, i.e., for magnetic charges, in over 140 experiments.

Search

Magnetic charge

Smallest magnetic charge suggested by quantum theory


Search in minerals, from mountains to the deep ocean
Search in meteorites and moon minerals
Search in cosmic rays
Search with particle accelerators

0
= he = eZ
= 4.1 pWb
2
none, only dipoles Ref. 17
none, only dipoles Ref. 17
none, only dipoles Ref. 17
none, only dipoles Ref. 17

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 18

The study of magnetism progressed across the world independently of the study of electricity. Towards the end of the twelfth century, the compass came into use in Europe. At
that time, there were heated debates on whether it pointed to the north or the south.
Then, in 1269, the French military engineer Pierre de Maricourt (12191292) published
his study of magnetic materials. He found that every magnet has two points of highest
magnetization, and he called them poles. He found that even after a magnet is cut, the
resulting pieces always retain two poles: when the stone is left free to rotate, one points to

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Magnets and other magnetic materials

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 14 Visualizing magnetic elds around magnets and coils with irong llings, with compass
needles and with computer graphics and with iron lings ( Wikimedia, MIT).

36

1 electricit y and fields

TA B L E 8 Some observed magnetic elds.

1 fT
0.1 pT to 3 pT
1 pT
1 pT to 10 pT
100 pT
0.5 nT
0.2 to 80 nT
0.1 to 1 T
20 to 70 T
0.1 to 100 T
100 T
100 T
100 mT
1T
max 1.3 T
5 T or more
10 T
22 T
45 T
76 T
1000 T
104 T
30 kT
from 106 T to 1011 T
4.4 GT
0.8 to 1 1011 T
1 TT
6.3 1053 T

the north and the other to the south. All magnets are dipoles. The two poles are called the
north pole and the south pole. Like poles repel, and unlike poles attract. As a consequence,
the magnetic north pole of the Earth is the one near the south pole, and vice versa.
Magnets are surrounded by magnetic fields; in other terms, they are surrounded by
magnetic field lines. Magnetic fields, like electric fields, can be visualized with field lines.
Figure 14 shows some ways to do this. We directly note the main difference between

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Lowest measured magnetic field (e.g., fields of the Schumann


resonances)
Magnetic field produced by brain currents
Magnetic field produced by single muscle action
Intergalactic magnetic fields
Magnetic field in the human chest, due to heart currents
Magnetic field of our galaxy
Magnetic field due to solar wind
Magnetic field directly below high voltage power line
Magnetic field of Earth
Magnetic field inside home with electricity
Magnetic field near mobile phone
Magnetic field that influences visual image quality in the dark
Magnetic field near iron magnet
Solar spots
Magnetic fields near high technology permanent magnet
Magnetic fields that produces sense of coldness in humans
Magnetic fields in particle accelerator
Maximum static magnetic field produced with superconducting coils
Highest static magnetic fields produced in laboratory, using hybrid
magnets
Highest pulsed magnetic fields produced without coil destruction
Pulsed magnetic fields produced, lasting about 1 s, using imploding
coils
Field of white dwarf
Fields in petawatt laser pulses
Field of neutron star
Quantum critical magnetic field
Highest field ever measured, on magnetar and soft gamma repeater
SGR-1806-20
Estimated magnetic field near atomic nucleus
Maximum possible magnetic field in nature (corrected Planck
magnetic field c 3 /4Ge)

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Magnetic field

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

O b s e r va t i o n

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

magnet

magnet

diamagnetic
material

paramagnetic
material

37

F I G U R E 15 The two basic


types of magnetic material
behaviour (tested in an
inhomogeneous eld):
diamagnetism and
paramagnetism.

Ref. 19

Any fool can ask more questions than seven


sages can answer.
Antiquity

It is known that honey bees, sharks, pigeons, the sandhill crane, various other birds,
salmon, trout, sea turtles, dolphins and certain bacteria can feel magnetic fields. One
speaks of the ability for magnetoreception. All these life forms use this ability for navigation. The most common detection method is the use of small magnetic particles inside
a cell; the cell then senses how these small built-in magnets move in a magnetic field.

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Can humans feel magnetic fields?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Page 68

Note: the values of the electric permittivity depend on the frequency of the applied field and
on the temperature. The values given here are only for static electric fields at room temperature.
Values for higher frequencies or other temperatures show strong variations.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

magnetic and electric field lines: magnetic field lines have no beginning and no ends,
they are closed. The direction of the field lines gives the direction of the magentic field,
and the density of the lines gives the magnitude of the field.
Many systems in nature are magnets, as shown in Figure 13. The existence of two
magnetic poles is valid for all magnets in nature: molecules, atoms and elementary particles are either dipoles or non-magnetic. There are no magnetic monopoles. Despite the
promise of eternal fame, no magnetic monopole has ever been found, as summarized in
Table 7.
Magnets have a second important property, shown in Figure 15: magnets transform
non-magnetic materials into magnetic ones. There is thus a magnetic polarization, similar
to the electric polarization. The amount of polarization depends on the material; some
values are given in Table 9. Certain materials, the so-called diamagnetic materials, are
repelled by magnets, though usually by weak forces. Others, the so-called paramagnetic
materials, are attracted to magnets. Some important materials, the ferromagnetic materials, such as steel, retain the induced magnetic polarization: they become permanently
magnetized. This happens when the atoms in the material get aligned by an external
magnet. Ferromagnetic materials are used to produce permanent magnets thus artificial lodestone.

38

1 electricit y and fields


TA B L E 9 The magnetic properties of materials.

M at e r i a l

R e l at i v e m a g netic permeabili t y r

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014


free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Ref. 20

The magnets are tiny, typically around 50 nm in size. These small magnets are used to
navigate along the magnetic field of the Earth. For higher animals, the variations of the
magnetic field of the Earth, 20 to 70 T, produce a landscape that is similar to the visible
landscape for humans. They can remember it and use it for navigation.
In fact, migrating birds like the sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) seem to have two
ways to sense magnetic fields. First of all, they have small iron crystals located inside
neurons that provide a magnetic map that is used for local navigation. For a long time, it
was thought that these neurons were located in the skin above the beak. In recent years,
it finally appeared that this often-cited fact was a collective mistake; the true magnetic
sensor particles are probably located in the neurons inside the ears of the birds, just below the hairs, as shown in Figure 16. The second magnetic sense of migrating birds is
an inclination compass that tell them the angle between the magnetic field lines and the

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Diamagnetic materials r < 1, repelled by magnets


Type I superconductors
0
Highly oriented pyrolitic graphite
0.999 55
Bismuth
0.999 83
Graphite
0.999 84
Gold
0.999 966
Copper
0.999 9936
Water
0.999 9912
Usual animals and plants
like water
Paramagnetic materials r > 1, attracted by magnets
Air, oxygen
1.000 0019
Biomagnetic particles in living
1.000 006
organisms
Aluminium
1.000 022
Platinum
1.000 26
Ferromagnetic materials r 1, able to form magnets
SmCo
c. 1.04
NdFeB
c. 1.15
Cobalt
80 to 200
Nickel
100
Iron
300 to 10 000
Permalloy
c. 8 000
Ferrites
up to 15 000
-metal
up to 140 000
Amorphous metals
up to 500 000

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

39

TA B L E 10 The dielectric properties of materials.

M at e r i a l

R e l at i v e e l e c t r i c
p e r m i t t i v i t y r

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Ref. 21

vertical. This system is based on magnetically sensitive protein molecules, so-called cryptochromes. The mechanism is located in the eye and is based on blue light. This second
magnetic sense, which is still not properly understood, is used by birds to decide the
general direction in which to fly.
Can humans feel magnetic fields? So far, there is no definite answer. Magnetic material

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 16 Stained cells from the inner


ear of pigeons; the used chemical gives
iron particles a blue colour. The
magnetic particles, one in each cell, lie
just beneath the hairs ( Institute of
Molecular Pathology, Vienna).

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Dielectric materials
Vacuum
1
Air
1.0006
Teflon
2.1
Graphite
10 to 15
Silicon dioxide
3.9
Silicon
11.7
Methanol
30
Water
80.1
Titanium dioxide
86-173
Paraelectric materials
Strontium titanate (a perovskite)
310
Barium strontium titanate (a
500
perovskite)
Ferroelectric materials r 1, able to form electrets
Lithium niobate (below 1430 K)
...
Barium titanate
1 250 to 10 000
Ferroelectric polymers
up to 100 000
Calcium copper titanate
over 250 000

40

1 electricit y and fields

F I G U R E 17 The magnetotactic bacterium


Magnetobacterium bavaricum with its magnetosomes
( Marianne Hanzlik).

Challenge 20 r

seems to be present in the human brain, but whether humans can feel magnetic fields is
still an open issue. Maybe you can devise a way to check this?

How can one make a motor?

Communism is the power of the local councils


plus electricification of the whole country.
Lenin.**

The reason for Lenins famous statement were two discoveries. One was made in 1820
by Hans Christian Oersted*** and the other in 1831 by Michael Faraday.**** The consequences of these experiments changed the world completely in less than one century.

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* Franois Arago (17861853) French physicist.


** Lenin (b. 1870 Simbirsk, d. 1924 Gorki), founder of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, in 1920 stated
this as the centre of his development plan for the country. In Russian, the local councils of that time were
called soviets.
*** Hans Christian Oersted (17771851) Danish physicist.
**** Michael Faraday (b. 1791 Newington Butts, d. 1867 London), English physicist, was born to a simple
family, without schooling, and of deep and naive religious ideas. As a boy he became assistant to the most
famous chemist of his time, Humphry Davy (17781829). He had no mathematical training, but late in
his life he became member of the Royal Society. A modest man, he refused all other honours in his life.
He worked on chemical topics, the atomic structure of matter and, most of all, he developed the idea of
(magnetic) fields and field lines. He used fields to describe all his numerous experimental discoveries about
electromagnetism, such as the Faraday effect. Fields were later described mathematically by Maxwell, who
at that time was the only person in Britain to take over Faradays field concept.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Are magnetism and electricity related? In the early 19th century, Franois Arago* discovered that they were. He explored a ship that had survived a bad thunderstorm. At that
time, ships where made of wood. The ship had been struck by lightning; as a result, the
ship needed a new compass. Thus lightning has the ability to demagnetize compasses.
Arago knew that lightning is an electrical phenomenon. He concluded that magnetism
and electricity must be related.
In short, magnetism must be related to the motion of electric charges. If magnetism is
related to motion, it must be possible to use magnetism and electricity to move matter.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Magnetism and electricity

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

Oersted's motor
currentcarrying
metal
wire
N S
magnet

41

Modern motor

N S

current-carrying
metal wire or coil

battery
wire
or coil

compass
needle

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* In fact, if one imagines tiny currents moving in circles inside magnets, one gets a unique description for
all magnetic fields observed in nature.
** Andr-Marie Ampre (b. 1775 Lyon, d. 1836 Marseille), French physicist and mathematician. Autodidact,
he read the famous Encyclopdie as a child; in a life full of personal tragedies, he wandered from maths to
chemistry and physics, worked as a school teacher, and published nothing of importance until 1820. Then
the discovery of Oersted reached all over Europe: electrical current can deviate magnetic needles. Ampre
worked for years on the problem, and in 1826 published the summary of his findings, which lead Maxwell
to call him the Newton of electricity. Ampre named and developed many areas of electrodynamics. In

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

On the 21st of July of 1821, Hans Christian Oersted published a leaflet, in Latin, which
took Europe by storm. Oersted had found (during a lecture demonstration to his students) that when a current is sent through a wire, a nearby magnet is put into motion. In
other words, he found that the flow of electricity can move bodies.
Due to Oersteds leaflet, everybody in Europe with a bit of dexterity started to experiment with electricity. Further experiments show that two wires in which charges flow
attract or repel each other, depending on whether the currents are parallel or antiparallel. These and other experiments show that wires in which electricity flows behave like
magnets.* In other words, Oersted had found the definite proof that electricity could be
turned into magnetism.
Shortly afterwards, Ampre** found that coils increase these effects dramatically. Coils

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 18 An old and a modern version of electric motor, and a galvonometer with limited rotation
range used for steering laser beams. Sizes are approximately 20 cm, 50 cm and 15 cm ( Wikimedia,
Honda, Wikimedia).

42

1 electricit y and fields

ceiling
thin wire
metal rod

electric current
F I G U R E 19 Current makes a metal rod rotate.

1832, he and his technician also built the first dynamo, or rotative current generator. Of course, the unit of
electrical current is named after him.
Ampre had two cats, which he liked dearly, a large one and a small one. When he was doing his experiments in his laboratory, they wanted to come in, and when they were in, they soon wanted to go out. One
day he was fed up. He made two holes in his door, a large one and a small one.

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Ref. 22

Magnetic monopoles do not exist. Therefore, all magnetic fields in nature are due to moving electric charges. But that is strange: If all magnetic fields are due to the motion of
charges, this must be also the case inside lodestone, or inside a usual permanent magnet.
Can this be shown?
In 1915, two men in the Netherlands found a simple way to prove that in any permanent magnet, charges are moving. They suspended a metal rod from the ceiling by a thin
thread and then put a coil around the rod, as shown in Figure 19. They predicted that
the tiny currents inside the rod would become aligned by the magnetic field of the coil.
As a result, they expected that a current passing through the coil would make the rod
turn around its axis. Indeed, when they sent a strong current through the coil, the rod
rotated. (As a result of the current, the rod was magnetized.) Today, this effect is called

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Which currents flow inside magnets?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

behave like small magnets. In particular, coils, like magnets, always have two poles, usually called the north and the south pole. Opposite poles attract, like poles repel each other.
As is well known, the Earth is itself a large magnet, with its magnetic north pole near the
geographic south pole, and vice versa. However, the magnetic field of the Earth is not due
to a solid permanent magnet inside it. The Earths solid core is too hot to be a permanent
magnet; instead, the magnetic field is due to circulating currents in the outer, liquid core.
(The power to keep the geodynamo running is estimated to be between 200 and 500 GW
and is due to the heat in the centre of the Earth.)
All the relations between electricity and magnetism can be used to make electric motors. First, electric current is used to generate a magnetic field; then the field is used to
move a magnet attached to the motor axis. The details on how to do this effectively depend on the size of the motor one is building, and form a science on its own: electric
engineering. Figure 18 shows some examples of electric motors.

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

Ref. 23

Vol. IV, page 99

43

the Einsteinde Haas effect after the two men who imagined, measured and explained it.*
The effect thus shows that even in the case of a permanent magnet, the magnetic field is
due to the internal motion of charges. The magnitude of the effect also shows that the
moving particles are electrons. Twelve years later it became clear that the angular momentum responsible for the effect is a mixture of orbital and spin angular momentum;
in fact, the electron spin plays a central role in the effect.
Permanent magnets are made from ferromagnetic materials. Permanent magnetization is due to the alignment of microscopic rotational motions. Due to this connection,
an even more surprising effect can be predicted: Rotating a piece of non-magnetized ferromagnetic material should magnetize it, because the tiny rotating currents would then
be aligned along the axis of rotation. This effect has indeed been observed; it is called
the Barnett effect after its discoverer. Like the Einsteinde Haas effect, the magnitude of
the Barnett effect can also be used to determine the gyromagnetic ratio of the electron.
Thus, also the Barnett effect proves that the spins of electrons (usually) play a larger role
in magnetism than their orbital angular momentum.

0 Bz B y
B
0 Bx ,
B= z
B y Bx
0

(9)

* Wander Johannes de Haas (18781960), Dutch physicist. De Haas is best known for two additional
magneto-electric effects named after him, the Shubnikovde Haas effect (the strong increase of the magnetic
resistance of bismuth at low temperatures and high magnetic fields) and the de Haasvan Alphen effect (the
diamagnetic susceptibility of bismuth at low temperatures is a periodic function of the magnetic field).
** The quantity B was not called the magnetic field until recently. We follow here the modern, logical
definition, which supersedes the traditional one, where B was called the magnetic flux density or magnetic
induction and another quantity, H, was called incorrectly, but for over a century the magnetic field. This
quantity H will not appear in this walk, but it is important for the description of magnetism in materials.

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called an antisymmetric tensor.


The magnetic field is defined by the acceleration it imparts on moving charges. This

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 21 e

All experiments show that the magnetic field has a given direction in space, and a magnitude common to all (resting) observers, whatever their orientation. We are thus tempted
to describe the magnetic field by a vector. However, this would be wrong, since a magnetic field does not behave like an arrow when placed before a mirror. Imagine that a
system produces a magnetic field directed to the right. You can take any system, a coil,
a machine, etc. Now build or imagine a second system that is the exact mirror version
of the first: a mirror coil, a mirror machine, etc. The magnetic system produced by the
mirror system does not point to the left, as maybe you expected: it still points to the right.
(Check by yourself.) In simple words, magnetic fields do not fully behave like arrows.
In other words, it is not completely correct to describe a magnetic field by a vector
B = (Bx , B y , Bz ), as vectors behave like arrows. The magnetic field is a pseudovector;
angular momentum and torque are also examples of such quantities. The precise way is
to describe the magnetic field by the quantity**

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Magnetic fields

44

1 electricit y and fields

TA B L E 11 Properties of the classical magnetic eld: an axial vector.

Magnetic
fields can

Physical
propert y

M at h e m at i c a l
name

Definition

Attract currents
Repel currents
Be distinguished
Change gradually

deflect charges
deflect charges
distinguishability
continuum

coupling
coupling
element of set
real vector space

equation (10)
equation (10)

Point somewhere

direction

Vol. I, page 77

Be compared
Be added
Have defined angles
Exceed any limit
Keep direction under reflection

measurability
additivity
direction
infinity
axiality

Change direction under time


reversal

axiality

vector space,
dimensionality
metricity
vector space
Euclidean vector space
unboundedness
parity-even vector,
pseudovector
time-odd vector

Page 242
Vol. I, page 77, Vol. V,
page 349

Vol. V, page 340


Vol. I, page 77
Vol. I, page 77
Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Page 243

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

a=

e
B
m

(10)

a relation which is often called Lorentz acceleration, after the important Dutch physicist

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acceleration is observed to follow

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

45

TA B L E 12 Some sensors for static and quasistatic magnetic elds.

Measurement

Sensor

Range

Voltage
Induced electromotive force
(voltage)
Bone growth stimulation

Hall probe
doves

up to many T
from a few nT

piezoelectricity and
magnetostriction of bones
human nerves

from 50 mT

human nerves

strong switched gradients

induced voltage when


waving left to right
unclear

a few nT

Induced electromotive force


(voltage)
Sensations in thorax and
shoulders
Sharks
Plants

from a few T

small effects on growth

* Hendrik A. Lorentz, (b. 1853 Arnhem, d. 1928 Haarlem). For more details on his biography, see the volume
on relativity.
** The expression B is the vector product of the two vectors. The most practical way to calculate the
vector product B component by component is given by the determinant
e
x

B = e y

ez

x
y
z

Bx

B y

Bz

or, more sloppily B = x

Bx

y
By

z .

Bz

(11)

This is easy to remember and easy to perform, both with letters and with numerical values. (Here, ex is the
unit basis vector in the x direction.) Written out, it is equivalent to the relation

Page 212

Challenge 22 s

(12)

which is harder to remember.


The Lorentz relation is also called the Laplace acceleration. It defines the magnitude and the direction
of the magnetic field B. The unit of the magnetic field is called tesla and is abbreviated T. One has 1 T =
1 N s/C m = 1 V s/m2 = 1 V s2 /A m.
The definition of the magnetic field again assumes, like that of the electric field, that the test charge q is
so small that it does not disturb the field B to be measured. Again, we ignore this issue, which means that
we ignore all quantum effects, until later in our adventure.
The definition of the magnetic field also assumes that space-time is flat, and it ignores all issues due to
space-time curvature.
Does the definition of magnetic field given here assume a charge speed much lower than that of light?

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B = ( y Bz B y z , Bx z x Bz , x B y Bx y )

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Vol. II, page 38


Vol. I, page 105

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Hendrik A. Lorentz* who first stated it clearly.**


The Lorentz acceleration is the effect at the root of any electric motor. An electric
motor is a device that uses a magnetic field as efficiently as possible to accelerate charges
flowing in a wire. Through the motion of the charges, the wire is then also moved. In an
electric motor, electricity is thus transformed into magnetism and then into motion. The
first efficient electric motors were built already in the 1830s.
Like for the electric field, we need to know how the strength of a magnetic field is determined by a moving charge. Experiments such as Oersteds show that the magnetic field
is due to moving charges, and that a point-like charge moving with velocity produces

46

1 electricit y and fields

a field B given by
B(r) =

Challenge 23 e

Challenge 24 s

0 r
q 3
4
r

where

0
= 107 N/A2 .
4

(13)

This is called Ampres law. Again, the strange factor 0 /4 is due to the historical way
in which the electrical units were defined. The constant 0 is called the permeability of
the vacuum and is defined by the fraction of newtons per ampere squared given in the
formula. It is easy to see that the magnetic field has an intensity given by E/c 2 , where E
is the electric field measured by an observer moving with the charge. This is one of the
many hints that magnetism is a relativistic effect.
We note that equation (13) is valid only for small velocities and accelerations. Can you
find the general relation?
Electromagnetism
Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

0
Ex /c E y /c Ez /c
0
Ex /c E y /c Ez /c
E
E
/c
0
B
B
/c
0
Bz
By
z
y
F = x
or F = x
.
E y /c
Bz
0
Bx
E y /c Bz
0
Bx
Ez /c B y
Bx
0
Ez /c B y
Bx
0
(14)
Obviously, the electromagnetic field F, and thus every component of these matrices, depends on space and time. The matrices show that electricity and magnetism are two faces
of the same effect.* In addition, since electric fields appear only in the topmost row and

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* Actually, the expression for the field contains everywhere the expression 1/ o 0 instead of the speed of

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

In 1831, Michael Faraday discovered an additional piece of the puzzle, one that even the
great Ampre had overlooked. He found that a moving magnet could cause a current
flow in an electrical circuit. Magnetism can thus be turned into electricity. This important discovery allowed the production of electrical current flow by generators, so-called
dynamos, using water power, wind power or steam power. In fact, the first dynamo was
built in 1832 by Ampre and his technician. Dynamos jump-started the use of electricity
throughout the world. Behind every electrical wall plug there is a dynamo somewhere.
Oersted found that electric current can produce magnetic fields. Faraday found that
magnetic fields could produce electric currents and electric fields. Electric and magnetic
fields are two aspects of the same phenomenon: electromagnetism. It took another thirty
years to unravel the full description.
Additional experiments show that magnetic fields also lead to electric fields when one
changes to a moving viewpoint. You might check this on any of the examples of Figures 18
to 45. Magnetism is relativistic electricity. Electric and magnetic fields are partly transformed into each other when switching from one inertial reference frame to the other.
Magnetic and electrical fields thus behave like space and time, which are also mixed up
when changing from one inertial frame to the other. The theory of special relativity thus
tells us that there must be a single concept, an electromagnetic field, describing them both.
Investigating the details, one finds that the electromagnetic field F surrounding charged
bodies has to be described by an antisymmetric 4-tensor

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

Challenge 25 s

47

leftmost column, the expressions show that in everyday life, for small speeds, electricity
and magnetism can be separated. (Why?)
Using relativistic notation, the electromagnetic field is thus defined through the 4acceleration b that it produces on a charge q of mass m and 4-velocity u:
mb = qF u
or, in 3-vector notation
dE/dt = qE

dp/dt = q(E + B) .

(15)

The invariants and the L agrangian of electromagnetic fields


Challenge 26 e

The electromagnetic field tensor F is an antisymmetric 4-tensor. (Can you write down the
relation between F , F and F ?) Like any antisymmetric tensor, the electromagnetic
field has two invariants, i.e., two deduced properties that are the same for every observer.
The first invariant is the expression
1
B 2 E 2 /c 2 = tr F 2
2

(17)

du
= qF u or
d
0
Ex /c
c
Ex /c
0
d
x
m = q
E y /c Bz
d y
z
Ez /c
By

mb = m

E y /c
Bz
0
Bx

Ez /c
c
B y
x
.
y
Bx
z
0

(16)

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light c. We will explain the reason for this substitution shortly.


* In component notation, using the convention to sum over Greek indices that appear twice, the definition
of the Lorentz force is

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

The expressions show how the power dE/dt and the three-force dp/dt depend on the
electric and magnetic fields.* The 4-vector expression and the 3-vector expression describe the same content; the simplicity of the first one is the reason for the involved matrices (14) describing the electromagnetic field F.
We stress that the extended Lorentz relation (15) is the definition of the electromagnetic
field F, since the field is defined as that stuff which accelerates charges. In particular, all
devices that put charges into motion, such as batteries and dynamos, as well as all devices
that are put into motion by flowing charges, such as electric motors and muscles, are
described by this relation. That is why this relation is usually studied, in the 3-vector form,
already in secondary school. The Lorentz relation describes all cases in which the motion
of objects can be seen by the naked eye or felt by our senses, such as the movement of
an electrical motor in a high speed train, in a lift and in a dental drill, the motion of the
picture generating electron beam in a cathode ray tube inside an old television, or the
travelling of an electrical signal in a cable and in the nerves of the body.
In summary, we found that the interaction between charges can be described in two
statements: First, charges produce electric and magnetic fields; second, charges are affected by electric and magnetic fields.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 24, Ref. 25

and

48

1 electricit y and fields

and the second invariant is the product


4EB = c tr F F .

Challenge 27 s

(18)

The uses of electromagnetic effects


The application of electromagnetic effects to daily life has changed the world. For example, the installation of electric lighting in city streets has almost eliminated the previously so common night assaults. These and all other electrical devices exploit the fact
that charges can flow in metals and, in particular, that electromagnetic energy can be

3 =

1
A A F F 2A F F A
2

2
= (AE)2 + (AB)2 |A E|2 |A B|2 + 4 (AE B) (E 2 + B 2 ) .
c
c
Ref. 26

Challenge 28 s

(20)

This expression is Lorentz (but not gauge) invariant; knowing it can help clarify unclear issues, such as the
lack of existence of waves in which the electric and magnetic fields are parallel. Indeed, for plane monochromatic waves all three invariants vanish in the Lorentz gauge. Also the quantities J , J A and A are
Lorentz invariants. (Why?) The last one, the frame independence of the divergence of the four-potential,
reflects the invariance of gauge choice. The gauge in which the expression is set to zero is called the Lorentz
gauge.

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* There is in fact a third Lorentz invariant, far less known. It is specific to the electromagnetic field and is a
combination of the field and its vector potential:

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

As usual, the action measures the change occurring in a system; it thus defines the
amount of change that occurs when field lines move. As usual, the action can be used
to describe the motion of the electromagnetic field by using the principle of least action.
The principle of least action then implies the evolution equations of the electromagnetic
field, which are called Maxwells field equations of electrodynamics. This approach is the
simplest way to deduce them. We will discuss the field equations in detail shortly.
The second invariant of the electromagnetic field tensor, 4EB = c tr F F, is a pseudoscalar; it describes whether the angle between the electric and the magnetic field is
acute or obtuse for all observers.*

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Can you confirm the two invariants, using the definition of trace as the sum of the diagonal elements?
The first invariant expression, B 2 E 2 /c 2 = 12 tr F 2 , turns out to be (proportional
to) the Lagrangian density of the electromagnetic field. In particular, this first invariant
is a scalar. This first invariant implies that if E is larger, smaller or equal to cB for one
observer, it also is for all other observers. Like for all intensive quantities that evolve, the
Lagrangian is proportional to the square of the intensive quantity. The minus sign in the
expression is the same minus sign that appears also in c 2 t 2 x 2 : it results from the mixing
of electric and magnetic fields that is due to boosts.
The Lagrangian density can be used to define the classical action of the electromagnetic field:

1 2
S = 0 E2
B dtdV .
(19)
2
20

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

49

v
d

charged rods
v
F I G U R E 20 The relativistic aspect of

magnetism.

transformed

Challenge 30 s

How motors prove relativity to be right

Ref. 27

All electric motors are based on the result that electric currents interact with magnetic
fields. The simplest example is the attraction of two wires carrying parallel currents. This
observation alone, made in 1820 by Ampre, is sufficient to make motion larger than a
certain maximal speed impossible.
The argument is beautifully simple. We change the original experiment and imagine
two long, electrically charged rods of mass m, moving in the same direction with velocity and separation d. An observer moving with the rods would see an electrostatic

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The only mathematical operation I performed


in my life was to turn the handle of a calculator.
Michael Faraday

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 29 s

Due to all these options, electrical light, lasers, batteries, electric motors, refrigerators,
radio, telephone, X-rays, television and computers have changed human life completely
in less than one century.
We note that many of these uses of electricity also occur in biological systems. However, no biological system makes use of X-rays, though. (Why?) No living being seems
to use electric cooling. (Why?) And could there be biological systems that communicate
via radio waves?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

into mechanical energy as done in loudspeakers, motors and muscles;


into light as in lamps, lasers, glass fibres, glow worms, giant squids and various deep
ocean animals;
into heat as in electric ovens, blankets, tea pots and by electric eels to stun and kill
prey;
into chemical effects as in hydrolysis, battery charging, electroplating and the brain;
into coldness as in refrigerators and Peltier elements, but in no known living system;
into radio wave signals as in radio and television, but in no known living system;
into stored information as in magnetic records, computers, animal and human
memory.

50

Challenge 31 e

1 electricit y and fields

repulsion between the rods given by


mae =

Challenge 32 e

1 22
40 d

(21)

where is the charge per length of the rods. A second, resting observer sees two effects:
the electrostatic repulsion and the attraction discovered by Ampre. The second observer
therefore observes
1 22 0 2 2
+
.
(22)
maem =
40 d
2 d
This expression must be consistent with the observation of the first observer. This is the
case only if both observers find repulsions. It is easy to check that the second observer
sees a repulsion, as does the first one, only if

Challenge 33 d

This maximum speed c, with a value of 0.3 GM/s, is thus valid for any object carrying
charges. But all everyday objects contain charges: there is thus a maximum speed for
matter.
Are you able to extend the argument for a maximum speed to neutral particles as well?
We will find out more on this limit velocity, which we know already, in a minute.
Another argument for magnetism as a relativistic effect is the following. In a wire with
electrical current, the charge is zero for an observer at rest with respect to the wire: the
wire is neutral for that observer. The reason is that the charges enter and exit the wire at
the same time for that observer. Now imagine an observer who flies along the wire. The
entrance and exit events do not occur simultaneously any more; the wire is charged for a
moving observer. (The charge depends on the direction of the observers motion.) Now
imagine that the moving observer is electrically charged. He will be attracted or repelled
by the wire, because for him, the wire is charged. The moving observer will say that the
attraction is due to the electric field of the wire. The observer at rest will also note the
attraction or repulsion of the moving observer, but since for him, the wire is neutral, he
will deduce that moving charges experience a force possibly with a slightly different
value, but this is a technicality due to the electric current in the wire; the observer at
rest will thus say that a wire with a current is surrounded by a magnetic field which only
produces an effect on charges that move. In short, we can say that magnetic fields are
relativistic consequences of the electric fields.
In summary, electric effects are due to more or less static electric charges and to their
electric fields; magnetism, magnetic effects and magnetic fields are due to moving electric charges.* In particular, magnetism is not due to magnetic charges. Such magnetic
monopoles do not exist. The strength of magnetism, used in any running electric motor,
* Electrons move in metal with a speed of about 1 m/s; thus if I walk with the same speed along a cable
carrying a constant current, I should not be able to sense any magnetic field. What is wrong with this
argument?

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Challenge 34 d

(23)

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Page 212

1
= c2 .
0 0

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

2 <

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

51

TA B L E 13 Voltage values observed in nature.

Vo l t a g e

Smallest measured voltage


Human nerves
Volta cell
Voltaic cell (battery)
Mains in households
Electric eel
Tramway supply
Sparks when rubbing a polymer pullover
Electric fence
Train supply
Ignition plug in cars
Colour television cathode ray tube
X-ray tube
Electron microscopes
Stun gun
Lightning stroke
Record accelerator voltage

c. 10 f V
70 mV
1V
1.5 V
230 V or 110 V
100 to 600 V
500 V
1 kV
0.7 to 10 kV
15 kV
15 kV
30 kV
30 to 200 kV
0.5 kV to 3 MV
65 to 600 kV
10 to 100 MV
1 TV

Maximum possible voltage in nature (corrected Planck voltage c 5 /4G /e )

6.1 1027 V

Curiosities and fun challenges about things electric and


magnetic

Alii vero et facta mirati et intellecta assecuti.*


Augustine of Hippo

Before we study the motion of an electromagnetic field in detail, lets have some fun with
electricity.

Nowadays, having fun with sparks is straightforward. Tesla coils, named after Nikola
Tesla** are the simplest devices that allow long sparks to be produced at home. Attention: this is dangerous; that is the reason that such devices cannot be bought (almost)
* Others however marvelled about the facts and understood their meaning Augustine, sermon 98, 3. Augustine of Hippo (b. 354 Tagaste, d. 430 Hippo Regius) is an influential moral theologian. Despite this, he
did not take care of his extramarital son, nor of his sons mother, because his own mother had forbidden
him to do so.
** (1856 Smiljan1943 New York City), Serbian engineer and inventor. He invented and promoted the polyphase alternating current system, the alternating current electric motor, wireless communica-

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copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

proves relativity right: there is a maximum speed in nature for all masses and charges.
Both electric and magnetic fields carry energy and momentum. They are two faces of
the same coin.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

O b s e r va t i o n

52

1 electricit y and fields

capacitive head
(c.10-20 pF to earth)
c.1000 turns

large sparks

10-100nF
230 V
50 Hz

c.10 kV
50 Hz

c.10 turns

spark gap
for switching

resonance frequencies
100 - 500 kHz
ground

Challenge 35 s

In 1722, George Graham discovered, by watching a compass needle, that the magnetic
field of the Earth shows daily variations. Can you imagine why these variations occur?

If even knocking on a wooden door is an electric effect, we should be able to detect fields
when doing so. Can you devise an experiment to check this?

Challenge 37 s

Birds come to no harm when they sit on unprotected electricity lines. Nevertheless, one
almost never observes any birds on tall, high voltage lines of 100 kV or more, which
transport power across longer distances. Why?
tion, fluorescent lighting and many other applications of electricity. He is also one of the inventors of radio.
The SI unit of the magnetic field is named after him. A flamboyant character, his ideas were sometimes
unrealistic; for example he imagined that Tesla coils could be used for wireless power transmission.

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Challenge 36 d

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

anywhere. The basic diagram and an example is shown in Figure 21. Tesla coils look like
large metal mushrooms (to avoid unwanted discharges) and plans for their construction
can be found on numerous websites or from numerous enthusiasts clubs, such as www.
stefan-kluge.de.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 21 The schematics, the realization and the operation of a Tesla coil, including spark and corona
discharges (photographs Robert Billon).

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

53

Challenge 38 s

How can you distinguish a magnet from an non-magnetized metal bar of the same size
and material, using no external means?

Challenge 39 s

In the basement of a house there are three switches that control three light bulbs in the
first floor. You are in the basement and are allowed to go to the first floor only once. How
do you find out which switch controls which bulb?

Challenge 40 s

How do you wire up a light bulb to the mains and three switches so that the light can
be switched on at any of the switches and off at any other switch? And for four switches?
Nobody will take a physicist seriously who is able to write Maxwells equations but cannot
solve this little problem.

Voltaic cells exist in all biological cells. For halobacteria, the internal voltaic cells are even
essential to survival. Living in saltwater, internal voltaic cells help them to avoid death
due to osmosis.

Challenge 41 e

* A secondary cell is a rechargeable cell.


** A pile made of sets of a zinc plate, a sheet of blotting paper soaked with salt water and a copper coin is
easily constructed at home and tested with a calculator or a digital watch.

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copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

The first appliances built to generate electric currents were large rubbing machines. Then,
in 1799 the Italian scientist Alessandro Volta (17451827) invented a new device to generate electricity and called it a pile; today its basic element is called a (voltaic) cell, a primary
cell* or, less correctly, a battery. (Correctly speaking, a battery is a collection of cells, as
the one found in a car.) Voltaic cells are based on chemical processes; they provide much
more current and are smaller and easier to handle than electrostatic machines. The invention of the battery changed the investigation of electricity so profoundly that Volta
became world famous. At last, a simple and reliable source of electricity was available
for use in experiments; unlike rubbing machines, piles are compact, work in all weather
conditions and make no noise.
An apple or a potato or a lemon with a piece of copper and one of zinc inserted is one
of the simplest possible voltaic cells. It provides a voltage of about 1 V and can be used
to run digital clocks or to produce clicks in headphones. Volta was also the discoverer of
the charge law q = CU for capacitors (C being the capacity, and U the voltage) and the
inventor of the high sensitivity capacitor electroscope. A modest man, nevertheless, the
unit of electrical potential, or tension, as Volta used to call it, was deduced from his name.
A battery is a large number of voltaic cells; the term was taken from an earlier, almost
purely military use.** A battery in a mobile phone is just an elaborated replacement for
a number of apples or potatoes.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

54

1 electricit y and fields

Challenge 42 d

What happened in Figure 22? Why are most of such pictures taken in good weather and
with blond children?

Magnetic storage looks far less mysterious if it is visualized. Figure 23 shows how
simply with can be done. The method also allows to take films. What happens inside a metal when it is magnetized? The beautiful films at www.youtube.com/watch?
v=HzxTqQ40wSU and www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFC6tbbMUaA, taken by Hendryk
Richert of Matesy, show how the magnetization regions change when a magnet is approached to a piece of metal. Also these films have been made with a simple microscope,
using as only help a polarizer and a layer of yttrium iron garnet deposited on glass.

Challenge 44 e

Magnets can be used to accelerate steel balls. The most famous example is the Gauss rifle
shown in Figure 24. If the leftmost ball is gently rolled towards the first magnet, the third
ball is strongly kicked away. Then the process repeats: the speed increases even more for
the fifth, the seventh and the ninth ball. The experiment never fails to surprise whoever
sees it for the first time. Where does the momentum of the final ball come from?

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Also plants react to magnetic fields. In particular, different magnetic fields yield different
growth patterns. The mechanisms, related to the cryptochrome system, are still a subject
of research.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 43 s

A PC or a telephone can communicate without wires, by using radio waves. Why are
these and other electrical appliances not able to obtain their power via radio waves, thus
eliminating power cables?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 22 A
common playground
effect ( Evan Keller).

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

55

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 45 s

Objects that are not rightleft symmetric are called chiral, from the Greek word for hand.
Can you make a mirror that does not switch chirality (i.e., does not switch left and
right)? In two different ways?

An adhesive tape roll is a dangerous device. Pulling the roll quickly leads to light emission
(through triboluminescence) and to small sparks. It is suspected that several explosions
in mines were triggered when such a spark ignited a combustible gas mixture.

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copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 23 Top: how to see the information stored in the magnetic stripe on a credit card wihout any
electronics, just using a lens, a polarizer and a magneto-optic layer; bottom: how to see the information
on a hard disk in the same way, by adding a simple coated glass plate to a polarizing microscope
( Matesy).

56

1 electricit y and fields

F I G U R E 24 A Gauss rie, made with a few steel balls and four magnets attached to a ruler with scotch
tape ( Simon Quellen Field).

Challenge 46 s

Take an envelope, wet it and seal it. After letting it dry for a day or more, open it in the
dark. At the place where the two sides of paper are being separated from each other, the
envelope glows with a blue colour. Why? Is it possible to speed up the test using a hair
dryer?

Ref. 187

The moving discharges seen in so many displays, called plasma globes, are produced in a
glass bowl filled with helium, neon or another inert gas at low pressure, typically 0.1 to
10 kPa, an applied voltage of 5 to 10 kV and usually a frequency of 30 to 40 kHz. At these
conditions, the ion temperature of the discharges is room temperature, so that there is no
danger; the electron temperature, which cannot be felt, is around 20 000 K. Approaching
the hand to the sphere changes the electric potential and this also the shape of the discharges. If you approach a fluorescent tube to such a set-up, it will start glowing; and by

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Electromagnetism is full of surprises and offers many effects that can be reproduced
at home. The internet is full of descriptions of how to construct Tesla coils to produce
sparks, coil guns or rail guns to shoot objects, electrostatic machines to make your hair
stand on end and much more. If you like experiments, just search for these terms. Some
people earn their living by showing high voltage effects on stage, such as long discharges
from their fingers or hair. A well-known example is Robert Krampf, also called Mr. Electricity, at thehappyscientist.com. Do not emulate these performers; it is rarely told that
several of them have suffered dangerous accidents while doing so.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 47 e

A charge in an electric field feels a force. In other words, electric field produce a potential energy for charges. Since energy is conserved, electric potential energy can be transformed into kinetic energy or in thermal energy. What do these possibilities allow doing?
What do they prevent from doing?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

57

moving your finger on the tube, you can magically change the glow region. The internet
is full of information on plasma globes.

The electric effects produced by friction and by liquid flow are usually small. However, in
the 1990s, a number oil tankers disappeared suddenly. The sailors had washed out the oil
tanks by hosing sea water onto the tank walls. The spraying led to charging of the tank;
a discharge then led to the oil fumes in the tank igniting. This led to an explosion and
subsequently the tankers sank. Similar accidents also happen regularly when chemicals
are moved from one tank to another.

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copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 48 e

A high voltage can lead to current flow through air, because air becomes conductive in
high electric fields. In such discharges, air molecules are put in motion. As a result, one
can make objects that are attached to a pulsed high tension source lift up in the air, if one
optimizes this air motion so that it points downwards everywhere. The high tension is
thus effectively used to accelerate ionized air in one direction and, as a result, an object
will move in the opposite direction, using the same principle as a rocket. An example is
shown in Figure 27, using the power supply of a PC monitor. (Watch out: danger!) Numerous websites explain how to build these so-called lifters at home; in Figure 27, the
bottle and the candle are used as high voltage insulator to keep one of the two thin high
voltage wires (not visible in the photograph) high enough in the air, in order to avoid discharges to the environment or to interfere with the lifters motion. Unfortunately, the majority of websites not all give incorrect or confused explanations of the phenomenon.
These websites thus provide a good challenge for one to learn to distinguish fact from
speculation.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 25 A dangerous hobby,
here demonstrated by Robert
Krampf ( Wikimedia).

58

1 electricit y and fields

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

When charges move, they produce a magnetic field. In particular, when ions inside the
Earth move due to heat convection, they produce the Earths magnetic field. When the
ions high up in the atmosphere are moved by solar wind, a geomagnetic storm appears;
its field strength can be as high as that of the Earth itself. In 2003, an additional mechanism was discovered. When the tides move the water of the oceans, the ions in the
salt water produce a tiny magnetic field; it can be measured by highly sensitive magne-

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Challenge 49 s

Rubbing a plastic spoon with a piece of wool charges it. Such a charged spoon can be used
to extract pepper from a saltpepper mixture by holding the spoon over the mixture.
Why?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 26 A low pressure glass sphere, or plasma globe, with a diameter of 30 cm and a built-in high
voltage generator, showing its characteristic electric discharges. In a usual plasma globe, the discharges
move around slowly and irregularly. ( Philip Evans).

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

59

F I G U R E 27 Lifting a
light object covered
with aluminium foil
using high a tension
discharge
( Jean-Louis Naudin
at www.jlnlabs.org).
Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

The magnetic field of the Earth is clearly influenced by the Sun. Figure 29 shows the
details of how the stream of charged particles from the Sun, the solar wind, influences
the field lines and a several processes occurring in the higher atmosphere. The details of

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Ref. 28

tometers in satellites orbiting the Earth. After two years of measurements from a small
satellite it was possible to make a beautiful film of the oceanic flows. Figure 28 gives an
impression.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 28 The magnetic eld due to the


tides ( Stefan Maus).

60

1 electricit y and fields

600 km

EXOSPHERE

THERMOSPHERE

IONOSPHERE
F

300 km

E
85 km

MESOSPHERE
45 km

STRATOSPHERE
12 km

TROPOSPHERE
300

600

900

1200

Temperature (K)

1500

10

10

10

Electron density
-3

(cm )

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

these fascinating processes are still a subject of research.

The names electrode, electrolyte, ion, anode and cathode were suggested by William
Whewell (17941866) on demand of Michael Faraday; Faraday had no formal education
and asked his friend Whewell to form two Greek words for him. For anode and cathode,
Whewell took words that literally mean upward street and downward street. Faraday
then popularized these terms, like the other words mentioned above.

Challenge 50 s

The shortest light pulse produced so far had a duration of 100 as. To how many wavelengths of green light would that correspond?

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copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 29 Top: the interaction of the solar wind and the Earths magnetic eld. Centre: the magnetic
environment of the Earth. Bottom: the names of the layers around the Earth and a photograph of the
cold plasma, or magnetosphere, surrounding the Earth, taken in the extreme ultraviolet, and showing
both the ring at the basis of each aurora and a tail pointing towards the Sun ( NASA).

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

61

suspending
wire

battery
N

S
mercury

F I G U R E 31 The simplest motor ( Stefan

Kluge).

Challenge 51 s

Why do we often see shadows of houses and shadows of trees, but never shadows of the
electrical cables hanging over streets?

Challenge 52 s

How would you measure the speed of the tip of a lightning bolt? What range of values
do you expect?

Ref. 29

Ref. 30

The magnetic field of the Earth has a dipole strength of 7.8 1022 A m2 . It shields us, together with the atmosphere, from lethal solar winds and cosmic radiation particles, by

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Challenge 53 s

One of the simplest possible electric motors was discovered by Faraday in 1831. A magnet
suspended in mercury will start to turn around its axis if a current flows through it. (See
Figure 30.) In addition, when the magnet is forced to turn, the device (often also called
Barlows wheel) also works as a current generator; people have even tried to generate
domestic current with such a system! Can you explain how it works?
The modern version of this motor makes use of a battery, a wire, a conductive
samariumcobalt magnet and a screw. The result is shown in Figure 31.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

How long can batteries last? At Oxford University, in Clarendon Hall, visitors can watch
a battery-operated electric bell that is ringing since 1840. The two batteries, two Zamboni
piles, produce a high voltage and low current, sufficient to keep the bell ringing. Several
other similar devices, using Zamboni piles, have worked in Italy with the same batteries
for over 100 years.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 30 A unipolar motor.

62

1 electricit y and fields

Electrical
component

Hydraulic
component
mass flow,
pressure

wire

tube

resistor

porous filter

capacitor

flexible &
elastic
closure

battery

pump

diode

one-way
valve

transistor

activated
valve

challenge

F I G U R E 32 The correspondence of electronics and water ow.

Challenge 54 s

Comparing electricity with water is a good way of understanding electronics. Figure 32


shows a few examples that even a teenager can use. Can you fill in the correspondence
for the coil, and thus for a transformer?
The picture also includes the transistor. This device, as the hydraulic component

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deflecting them to the poles. Today, a lack of magnetic field would lead to high radiation on sunny days; but in the past, its lack would have prevented the evolution of the
human species. We owe our existence to the magnetic field of the Earth. At present, the
magnetic field decreases by about 5% per century. It seems that it might disappear temporarily in 1500 years; it is unclear whether this will lead to an increase of the cosmic
radiation hitting the Earths surface, or if the solar wind itself will take over the shilding
effect.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

inductor

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

current,
voltage

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

63

shows, can be used to control a large current by using a small current. Therefore, transistors can be used as switches and as amplifiers. This is the reason that all electronic circuits,
from radios to mobile phones and computers make heavy use of transistors. A modern
mobile phone or computer typically contains several million transistors, mostly assembled inside so-called integrated circuits. The design of these devices is a science on its
own.

There is even a way to push the previous analogy in another direction: it is possible to
produce a mathematically consistent analogy between electric circuits and continuous
fields. The required circuits are infinite grids or meshes in all directions of space, and
are called mimetic discretizations. If you like to think in electric terms, you might enjoy
pursuing this. Just search for the term in a search engine.

The Kirlian effect, which allows one to make such intriguingly beautiful photographs, is
not a property of objects, but a result of the applied time-varying electric field.

Challenge 56 e

Challenge 57 ny

Do electrons and protons have the same charge? Experiments show that the values are
equal to within at least twenty digits. How would you check this?

Challenge 58 ny

Magnets can be used, even by school children, to climb steel walls. Have a look at the
www.physicslessons.com/TPNN.htm website.

Can magnets be used to make a floating bed? In 2006, a Dutch architect presented to
the public a small model of a beautiful floating bed, shown on the left of Figure 33, kept
floating in the air by permanent magnets. To prevent that the model bed falls over, it is
fastened to the ground by four ropes. On his website, the architect also offers a real-size

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Charge is velocity-independent. How would you confirm this?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Page 212

At home, electricity is mostly used as alternating current. In other words, no electrons


actually flow through cables; as the drift speed of electrons in copper wires is of the order
of 1 m/s, electrons just move back and forward by 20 nm. Nothing flows in or out of the
cables! Why do the electricity companies require a real flow of money in return, instead
of being satisfied with a back and forth motion of money?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 55 s

The ionosphere around the Earth has a resonant frequency of 7 Hz; for this reason any
apparatus measuring low frequencies always gets a strong signal at this value. Can you
give an explanation of the frequency?

64

1 electricit y and fields

Page 100

Extremely high magnetic fields have strange effects. At fields of 1010 T, vacuum becomes
effectively birefringent, photons can split and coalesce, and atoms get squeezed. Hydrogen atoms, for example, are estimated to get two hundred times narrower in one direction. Fortunately, these conditions exist only in specific neutron stars, called magnetars.

and is due to a school teacher. Georg Simon Ohm (b. 1789 Erlangen, d. 1854 Munich), was
a Bavarian school teacher and physicist. He explored the validity of the proportionality
in great depth and for many materials; in those days, such measurements were difficult to
perform. Ohm discovered that the proportionality applies to most materials and to many
current levels, as long as the temperature, the material density and the charge densities
remain constant. The proportionality is thus not valid for situations with sparks or in
semiconductors. But it is valid for most solid conductors, in particular for metals.
Ohms efforts were recognized only late in his life, and he eventually was promoted to

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Ohms law, the observation that for almost all materials the current I is proportional to
the voltage U, is
U
= R = const.
(24)
U I or
I

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 59 s

version of the same bed, for a price of over one million US dollars. However, the images
of the scaled up bed the only two images that exist are not photographs, but computer
graphics, as this dream bed is impossible. Why?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 33 The oating bed problem: while the left model, with a length of around 40 cm and a
oating height of a few centimetres, exists and has been admired by many, the scaled-up, real-size
version on the right is impossible ( Janjaap Ruissenaars at www.UniverseArchitecture.com). The two
images on the right are not photographs: they show a dream, not reality. Why?

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

dU34
dU41
I

e 12 + e I23 = 1

65

= dU34 /(I12 ln 2)
1

2
1
3
4
material thickness d

professor at the Technical University in Munich. Later the unit of electrical resistance R
this is the official name for the proportionality factor between voltage, which is measured
in volt, and current, which measured in ampere was named after him. One ohm is
defined and written as 1 V/A=1 .
Today, Ohms relation is easy to measure. Recently, even the electrical resistance of
single atoms has been measured: in the case of xenon it turned out to be about 105 . It
was also found that lead atoms are ten times more conductive than gold atoms. Can you
imagine why?

Since many decades, Ohms law is taught in secondary school until every pupil in a class
has lost his interest in the matter. For example, the electric power P transformed into heat
in a resistor is given
U2
.
(25)
P = U I = I 2R =
R

Vol. I, page 325

Challenge 61 d

Ohms law, so simple it seems, has many fascinating mathematical aspects. For example,
in 1958, the Dutch physicist J.L. van der Pauw proved an astonishing formula and method
that allows measuring the specific resistance of material layers of any shape. One only
needs to attach four gold wires to the layer anywhere on its border. The specific resistance
is then given by the expression shown in Figure 34. Can you imagine how the formula
is deduced? (This is not an easy problem.) The formula reduced the workload in labora-

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We mentioned this relation already earlier on; have a look. Now you know everything
that needs to be known on the topic. Above all, the expression for electric power in a
resistor describes electric heating, for example the heating in a modern kitchen stove or
in a coffee machine.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 60 ny

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 31

F I G U R E 34 Can you
deduce Van der Pauws
formula for the specic
resistance of
homogeneous layers
of any shape (left) or
its special case for a
symmetrical shape
(right)?

66

1 electricit y and fields

insulators
C1

high voltage line

wires
C2

neon lamp

F I G U R E 35

F I G U R E 36 A neon lamp hanging from a high

Capacitors in series.

voltage line.

tories across the world by a significant amount; before the formula had been discovered,
in every experiment, researchers also had to produce separate, dedicated samples that
allowed measuring the specific resistance of the material they were investigating.

Ref. 32

For beautiful animations about magnetic and electric fields, see the website web.mit.edu/
8.02t/www/802TEAL3D/visualizations.

Gallium arsenide semiconductors can be patterned with so-called quantum dots and
point contacts. These structures allow one to count single electrons. This is now routinely
done in several laboratories around the world.

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Challenge 63 s

Electrostatics is sometimes counter-intuitive. Take an isolated, conducting sphere of radius R, and a point charge located outside the sphere, both with the same charge. Even
though charges of equal sign repel each other, at small distances from the sphere, the
point charge is attracted to the sphere. Why? At which distance d do they repel?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 62 s

A good way to make money is to produce electricity and sell it. In 1964, a completely new
method was invented by Fletcher Osterle. The method was presented to a larger public in
a beautiful experiment in 2003. Larry Kostiuk and his group took a plate of glass, added
a conducting layers on each side, and then etched a few hundred thousand tiny channels
through the plate: 450 000 microchannels, each around 15 m in diameter, in the 2 cm
diameter plate. When water is made to flow through the channels, a current is generated.
The contacts at the two conducting plates can be used like battery contacts and generated
1.5 A of electric current.
This simple device uses the effect that glass, like most insulators, is covered with a
charged layer when it is immersed in a liquid. Can you imagine why a current is generated? Unfortunately, the efficiency of electricity generation is only about 1%, making the
method much less interesting than a simple blade wheel powering a dynamo.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

67

Ref. 33

Challenge 64 s

The charges on two capacitors in series are not generally equal, as naive theory states.
For perfect, leak-free capacitors the voltage ratio is given by the inverse capacity ratio
V1 /V2 = C2 /C1 , due to the equality of the electric charges stored. This is easily deduced
from Figure 35. However, in practice this is only correct for times between a few and a
few dozen minutes. Why?

Challenge 65 ny

On certain high voltage cables leading across the landscape, small neon lamps shine
when the current flows, as shown in Figure 36. (You can see them from the train when
riding from Paris to the Roissy airport.) How is this possible?

Challenge 66 s

During rain or fog, high-voltage lines often make noises; sometimes they even sing. What
is going on?

Challenge 67 s

A pure magnetic field cannot be transformed into a pure electric field by change of observation frame. The best that can be achieved is a state similar to an equal mixture of
magnetic and electric fields. Can you provide an argument elucidating this relation?

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Page 16

Electric polarizability is the property of matter responsible for the deviation of water flowing from a tap caused by a charged comb. It is defined as the strength of electric dipole
induced by an applied electric field. The definition simply translates the observation that
many objects acquire a charge when an electric field is applied. Incidentally, how precisely combs get charged when rubbed, a phenomenon called electrification, is still one
of the mysteries of modern science.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 37 An electrical problem that is not easy ( Randall Munroe).

68

1 electricit y and fields

F I G U R E 38 The change of the relative


permittivity (real and imaginary) with
frequency for a typical material, and the
general processes responsible for the different
domains ( Wikimedia/Kenneth Mauritz).

Challenge 68 ny

Calculating resistance of infinite grids is one of the most captivating problems in electricity, as shown in Figure 37. Can you find the solution?

C U e

(26)

where e is the positron charge, C capacity and U potential difference. There is also an
indeterminacy relation between electric current I and time t
I t e .
Ref. 34

(27)

Both these relations may be found in the literature.

Challenge 69 e

If an axis rotates, one can attach a magnet to its end. With such a rotating magnet an
extremely cheap tachymeter can be realized. How?

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Electric properties of materials, in contrast to their magnetic properties, vary strongly


with the frequency of the applied electric field. Figure 38 shows how the permittivity
changes with frequency, and which microscopic processes are at the basis of the property
at a specific frequency.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

To every limit value in nature there is a corresponding indeterminacy relation. This is


also valid also for electricity and the lower charge limit. Indeed, there is an indeterminacy
relation for capacitors, of the form

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

69

Challenge 70 s

In Maxwells 1890 book on electrodynamics, he includes Figure 39 as a model of magnetic and electric fields of the vacuum. What is the biggest problem of this model of the
vacuum?

For how long can silicon-based integrated circuits be made smaller and smaller? The
opinions on this matter differ. Optimistic predictions, often called Moores law, alternate with predictions that from 2011 onwards, the size reduction will be moderate due
to the high cost of the required equipment. For example, the next generation of wafer
steppers, the most expensive machines in the production of silicon chips, must work in
the extreme ultraviolet usually 13 nm in order to achieve small transistor sizes. At
this wavelength air is an absorber, and lenses have to be replaced by mirrors. It is unclear
whether this will be technically and economically feasible. Future will tell.

Hopping electrons and the biggest disappointment of the


television industry
It is well known that when an electric field in a vacuum points along a glass surface,
electrons can hop along the glass surface. The general effect is shown in Figure 41; usually,
the effect is unwelcome. Among others, the hopping effect is responsible for sparks in
vacuum systems that contain high voltage.
When this effect was studied in detail, it turned out that reasonably low electric fields

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Challenge 71 s

In the 1990s, microscope images showed, surprisingly, that the tusks of narwhales are
full of nerve endings. Thus the tusk may be a sensory organ. However, the details and
the exact use of the organ is not understood. How would you find out?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 35

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 39 Maxwells unsuccessful
model of the vacuum.

70

1 electricit y and fields

Glass

electric field

hopping
electrons

F I G U R E 41 Free electrons can hop along a glass wall.

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Ref. 36

are sufficient to create sizeable electric hopping currents. The effect also works around
bends and corners. Furthermore, electric switches that change the hopping direction can
be constructed. In short, the hopping effect can be used to make extremely cheap flat
television displays of high image quality. The idea is to put an array of electron sources
essentially sharp metal tips at the start of glass channels and to transport the emitted
electrons along the channels, making use of suitable switches, until they hit phosphorescent colour pixels. These are the same pixels that were used in the then common bulky
and heavy television tubes and that are used today in flat plasma displays. Since the
hopping effect also works around bends and corners, and since it only needs glass and
a bit of metal, the whole system can be made extremely thin, lightweight and cheap. Already in the early 1990s, the laboratory samples of the electron hopping displays were
spectacularly good: the small displays were brighter, sharper and cheaper than liquid
crystal displays, and the large ones brighter, sharper and cheaper than plasma displays.
Affordable flat television was on the horizon.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Glass

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 40 A cathode ray tube in older


televisions: the rst way now obsolete
to produce changing colour images using
electric signals. Television tubes emit an
electron beam, deect it, and generate
light by electroluminescence on a
coloured screen covered with patterned
phosphors.

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

71

How do nerves work?

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Page 32

Nerves are wonders. Without nerves, we would not experience pleasure, we would not
experience pain, we would not see, we would not hear. Without nerves, we would not
live. But how do nerves transport signals?
In 1789, as mentioned above, Luigi Galvani discovered that nerves transport electric
signals, by doing experiments with frog legs. Are nerves wires? One and a half centuries
after Galvani it became clear that nerves do not conduct electricity using electrons, as
metal wires do, but by using ions. Nerve signals propagate using the motion of sodium
Na+ and potassium K+ ions through the cell membrane of the nerve. The resulting signal
speed is between 0.5 m/s and 120 m/s, depending on the type of nerve. (Nerve axons
coated with myelin, a protein that acts as an electric insulator, are faster than uncoated
axons.) The signal speed is sufficient for the survival of most species it helps the body
to run away in case of danger.
Nerves differ from wires in another aspect: they cannot transmit constant voltage sig-

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Then came the disappointment. The lifetime of the displays was only of the order
of one hundred hours. Despite the most intense material research possible, achieving a
higher lifetime turned out to be impossible. All tricks that were tried did not help. Despite all their fantastic properties, despite huge investments in the technology, despite
the best material researchers working on the issue, electron hopping displays could not
be brought to market. Not a single display was ever sold.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 42 The electrical signals calculated (above) and measured (below) in a nerve, following
Hodgkin and Huxley.

72

1 electricit y and fields

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Ref. 38

nals, but only signal pulses. The first, approximate model for this behaviour was presented
in 1952 by Hodgkin and Huxley. Using observations about the behaviour of potassium
and sodium ions, they deduced an elaborate evolution equation that describes the voltage V in nerves, and thus the way the signals propagate. The equation reproduces the
characteristic voltage spikes measured in nerves, shown in Figure 42.
The precise mechanism with which ions cross the membranes, using so-called channel
proteins, was elucidated only twenty years later. Despite this huge body of work, and even
though Hodgkin and Huxley received the Nobel Prize for Medicine for their work, their
model cannot be correct. The model does not explain the reversibility of the propagation
process, the obserbed thickness change of the nerve during propagation or the excitation
of nerves by simple deformation or temperature changes; most of all, the model does not
explain the working of anesthetics. The working of nerves remained unknown.
Only around the year 2000 did Thomas Heimburg and his team discover the way
signals propagate in nerves. They showed that a nerve pulse is an electromechanical solitonic wave of the cylindrical membrane. In the cylindrical membrane, the protein structure changes from liquid to solid and back to liquid. A short, slightly thicker ring of
solid proteins propagates along the cylinder: that is the nerve pulse. The model is shown
in Figure 43. (The term solid has a precise technical meaning in two-dimensional systems and describes a specific ordered state of the molecules.) This model explains all the
properties of nerve pulses that were unexplained before. In particular, it explains that
anaesthetics work because they dissolve in the membrane and thus block the formation
and the propagation of the rings. All quantitative predictions of the model match obser-

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 37

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 43 Top: A biomembrane, with solid-ordered lipids (red), liquid lipids (green) and various
dissolved proteins (yellow, blue, white). Bottom: a nerve pulse propagating as a two-dimensional phase
transformation liquid/solid/liquid along a cylindrical nerve membrane ( Thomas Heimburg/Wiley-VCH).

liquid electricit y, invisible fields and maximum speed

73

vations.
In short, nerve signals are electromechanical pulses; they are a mixture of current and
sound waves. The electromechanical model of nerves explains how signals propagate and
how pain is felt. The model also explains why no pain is felt during anesthesia. On the
other hand, the electromechanical model does not (yet) explain why we loose consciousness during anesthesia. This is an additional process that takes place in the brain. It is
known that loss of consciousness is related to the change of brain waves, but the details
are still a topic of research. Nerves and brains still have wonderful properties to be explored.
A summary: three basic facts about electricity

Ref. 40

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 39

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 39

The experiments we have described so far show three basic results:


Electric charges exert forces on other charges.
Electric charges are conserved.
Charges, like all matter, move slower than light.
From these three statements the definition of charge, the conservation of charge, and
the invariance of the speed of light we can deduce every aspect of classical electrodynamics. (If we want, we can add the non-existence of magnetic charge as an explicit,
additional assumption.) In particular, the Lagrangian of electrodynamics and Maxwells
field equations can be deduced from these three statements; they describe the way that
charges produce any electric, magnetic or electromagnetic field. Also the Lorentz force
can be deduced; it describes how the motion of massive charges and the motion of the
electromagnetic field is related.
The proof of the connection between charge conservation and the field equations can
be given mathematically; we do not present it here, because the algebra is somewhat
involved. The essential connection is: all of electrodynamics follows from the properties
of charges that we have discovered so far.

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Chapter 2

THE DESCRIPTION OF
ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELD
EVOLUTION

The first field equation of electrodynamics

dF = j 0 or

E =
and
0

1 E
= 0 j .
c 2 t

(28)

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* James Clerk Maxwell (b. 1831 Edinburgh, d. 1879 Cambridge), Scottish physicist. He founded electromagnetism by theoretically unifying electricity and magnetism, as described in this chapter. His work on thermodynamics forms the second pillar of his activity. In addition, he studied the theory of colours and developed
the colour triangle; he was one of the first people to make a colour photograph. He is regarded by many as
the greatest physicist ever. Both Clerk and Maxwell were his family names.
** There is a certain freedom in writing the equations, because different authors absorb different combinations of the constants c and 0 into the definitions of the quantities F, A and j. This is the most common
version. The equations can be generalized to cases where the charges are not surrounded by vacuum, but
located inside matter. We will not explore these situations in our walk because, as we will see during our
mountain ascent, the seemingly special case of vacuum in fact describes all of nature.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

The first relativistic field equation of electrodynamics is the precise statement that electromagnetic fields originate at charges, and nowhere else. It can variously be written**

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Vol. IV, page 218

lectric and magnetic fields change: simply said, they move. How
xactly does this happen? In the 1860s, James Clerk Maxwell* collected all
xperimental knowledge he could find, and deduced the precise description
of electromagnetic field motion. Twenty years later, Heaviside and Hertz extracted the
main points of Maxwell ideas, calling their summary Maxwells theory of the electromagnetic field.
The motion of the electromagnetic field is described by a set of evolution equations. In
the relativistic description, the set consists of two equations, in the non-relativistic case of
four equations. All observations of classical electrodynamics follow from these equations.
In fact, if quantum effects are properly taken into account, all electromagnetic effects of
nature are described.

the description of electromagnetic field evolu tion

75

electric field E
current I

wire with
current I
speed v

object with
charge

magnetic field B

Charges are sinks or sources


of electric field lines.

Currents have magnetic vortex


field lines wrapped around them.

Changing electric fields


produce magnetic fields.

F I G U R E 44 The rst of Maxwells eld equations of electrodynamics illustrated in three drawings.

* In component form, the first equation can be written


d F = j 0 = (c, j)0 = (0 c, 0 )0
0
Ex /c
(t /c, x , y , z )
E y /c
Ez /c

Ex /c
0
Bz
B y

E y /c
Bz
0
Bx

or
Ez /c
By
= 0 (c, j) .
Bx
0

(29)

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The second of Maxwells equations, illustrated in Figure 45, expresses the observation
that in nature there are no magnetic charges, i.e., that magnetic fields have no sources.
As a result, the equation also gives a precise description of how changing magnetic fields

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

The second field equation of electrodynamics

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 72 e

Each of these two equivalent ways* to write the first Maxwell equation makes a simple
statement: electrical charges carry the electromagnetic field; they carry it along with them.
The first equation thus describes the attraction of dust by electrically charged objects and
the working of electromagnets.
This first equation is equivalent to the three basic observations illustrated in Figure 44:
Coulombs relation, Ampres relation, and the way changing electrical fields induce magnetic effects. More precisely, if we know where charges are and how they move, we can
determine the electromagnetic field F they generate. Static charges, described by a density , produce electrostatic fields, and moving charges, described by a 3-current density
j, produce a mix of electric and magnetic fields. Stationary currents produce magnetostatic fields.
The first equation also contains the right hand rule for magnetic fields around wires,
through the vector product. As mentioned, the equation also states, most clearly in its
last form, that changing electric fields induce magnetic fields. The effect is essential in
the primary side of transformers. The small factor 1/c 2 implies that the effect is small;
therefore coils with many windings or strong electric currents are needed to produce or
detect the effect.

76

2 the description of electromagnetic field evolu tion

No
magnetic charges
exist.

I1(t)

I2(t)

Changing magnetic fields


lead to electric fields.

F I G U R E 45 The second eld equation of electrodynamics.

d F = 0 with
B = 0

and

F
2
B
.
E =
t

F =

or
(30)

* In component form, the second equation can be written

0
Bx
(t /c, x , y , z )
By
Bz

Bx
0
Ez /c
E y /c

B y
Ez /c
0
Ex /c

Bz
E y /c
= (0, 0, 0, 0) or
Ex /c
0

F = 0 or
F + F + F = 0 .
Page 88

(31)

We note that the dual tensor F follows form the field tensor F by substituting E/c by B and B by E/c.
This is the so-called duality transformation. More on this duality below.

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d F = 0 or

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

First of all, the second field equation* thus expresses the lack of sources for the dual field
tensor F. In other words, in nature there are no magnetic charges, i.e., no magnetic
monopoles: there are no sources for magnetic fields. The equation thus states that cutting
a magnet with a north and a south pole in any way always produces pieces with two poles,
never a piece with a single pole.
Since there are no magnetic charges, magnetic field lines have no beginning and no
end; not only the magnetic field lines induced by charges, no, all magnetic field lines
have no beginning and no end. For example, field lines continue inside magnets. The
lack of beginnings and ends is expressed mathematically by stating that the magnetic flux
through a closed surface S such as a sphere or a cube always vanishes: S B dA = 0.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

create electric fields, and vice versa. The second of Maxwells equations for electrodynamics can variously be written

the description of electromagnetic field evolu tion

Challenge 73 ny

Challenge 74 ny

77

In other words, all field lines that enter a closed volume also leave it.*
Furthermore, the second Maxwell equation expresses that changes in magnetic fields
produce electric fields: this effect is used in the secondary side of transformers and in
dynamos. The cross product in the expression implies that an electric field generated in
this way also called an electromotive field has no start and end points. The electromotive field lines thus run in circles: in most practical cases they run along electric circuits.
In short, an electric field can (also) have vortices, but only when there is a changing magnetic field. The minus sign is essential to ensure energy conservation (why?) and has a
special name: it is called Lenzs rule.
In practice, the second Maxwell equation is always needed together with the first. Can
you see why?
The validity and the essence of Maxwells field equations
Together with Lorentz evolution equation

(32)

Colliding charged particles


Electromagnetic fields move. A simple experiment clarifies the meaning of motion for
fields: When two charged particles collide, their total momentum is not conserved. Let
Ref. 41

* In contrast to what is often said and written in physics books, manetic field lines are, in general, not closed
lines; they are not, in general, loops or vortex lines. Closed magnetic field lines occur only for straight wires;
they are not even loops for simple helical coils. In fact, in all usual, non-academic situations, magnetic field
lines start and end at spatial infinity. Magnetic field lines are a mathematical tool, they do not provide a
completely useful description of the magnetic field. The magnetic field is best described by its vector field.

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

which describes how charges move given the motion of the fields, Maxwells evolution
equations (28) and (30) describe all electromagnetic phenomena occurring on everyday
scales, from mobile phones, car batteries, to personal computers, lasers, lightning, holograms and rainbows. This description of electromagnetic fields is complete for everyday
life. Only quantum effects and the effects of curved space-time are not included.
Maxwells equations seem very complex. But we should never forget that they contain only four basic ideas. First: electric charges follow Coulombs rule. Second: electric
charges moves slower than light. Third: electric charges are conserved. Fourth: magnetic
charges do not exist. If we want to be simplistic, Maxwells equations are just the relativistic formulation of Coulombs rule. In fact, as we have seen before, Maxwells equations
follow from charge conservation alone.
We will not study many applications of the field equations. True, the range of applications is vast: modern medicine, transport, telecommunication, computers, and most jobs
and many pleasures depend on electricity. But we leave these topics aside and continue
directly towards our aim to understand the connection between electromagnetic fields,
everyday motion and the motion of light. In fact, the electromagnetic field has an important property that we mentioned right at the start: the field itself can move. In particular,
the field can carry energy, linear momentum and angular momentum.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 39

dp/dt = q(E + B) .

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

mb = qF u or
dE/dt = qE and

78

2 the description of electromagnetic field evolu tion

m, q

m, q

distance

r
F I G U R E 46 Charged particles after a collision.

Challenge 76 s
Ref. 43

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Page 111

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 42

In other words, the total system has a vanishing total momentum for this observer.
Take a second observer, moving with respect to the first with velocity , so that the
first charge will be at rest. Expression (33) leads to two different values for the electric
fields, one at the position of each particle. In other words, the system of the two particles
is not in inertial motion, as we would expect; the total momentum is not conserved for
this observer. The missing momentum is small, but where did it go?
This at first surprising effect has even been put in the form of a theorem by Van Dam
and Wigner. They showed that, for a system of particles interacting at a distance, the total
particle energymomentum cannot remain constant in all inertial frames.
The total momentum of the system is conserved only because the electromagnetic
field itself also carries some momentum. In short, momentum is conserved in the experiment, but some of it is carried by the field. The precise amount depends on the observer.
Two colliding charged particles thus show us that electromagnetic fields have momentum. If electromagnetic fields have momentum, they are able to strike objects and to be
struck by them. As we will show below, light is also an electromagnetic field. Thus we
should be able to move objects by shining light on to them. We should even be able to
suspend particles in mid air by shining light on to them from below. Both predictions
are correct, and some experiments will be presented shortly.
We conclude that any sort of field leading to particle interactions must carry both
energy and momentum, as the argument applies to all such cases. In particular, it applies
to nuclear interactions. Indeed, in the quantum part of our mountain ascent we will even
find an additional result: all fields are themselves composed of particles. The energy and
momentum of fields then become an obvious state of affairs. In short, it makes sense to
say that electromagnetic fields move, because they carry energy and momentum.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 75 ny

us check this.
Imagine two particles of identical mass and identical charge just after a collision, when
they are moving away from one another. The situation is illustrated in Figure 46. Imagine
also that the two masses are large, so that the acceleration due to their electrical repulsion
is small. For an observer at the centre of gravity of the two, each particle feels an acceleration from the electric field of the other. This electric field E is given by the so-called
Heaviside formula
q (1 2 /c 2 )
E=
.
(33)
4e0 r 2

the description of electromagnetic field evolu tion

current

current

79

magnet

vector
potential

N
vector
potential
S

F I G U R E 47 Vector potentials for selected situations.

Challenge 77 s

Ref. 1, Ref. 24

* What is the relation, for static fields, between field lines and (equi-) potential surfaces? Can a field line
cross a potential surface twice? For more details on topics such as these, see the free textbook by B o Thid,
Electromagnetic Field Theory, on his www.plasma.uu.se/CED/Book website. And of course, in English, have
a look at the texts by Schwinger and by Jackson.

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When a charged particle moves through a magnetic potential A(x), its momentum
changes by qA; it changes by the difference between the potential values at the start

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 44

The study of moving fields is called field theory and electrodynamics is the prime example.
(The other classical example is fluid dynamics; moving electromagnetic fields and moving fluids are very similar mathematically.) Field theory is a beautiful topic; field lines,
equipotential lines and vortex lines are some of the concepts introduced in this domain.
They fascinate many.* However, in this mountain ascent we keep the discussion focused
on motion.
We have seen that fields force us to extend our concept of motion. Motion is not only
the change in state of objects and of space-time, but also the change in state of fields. We
therefore need, also for fields, a complete and precise description of their state.
The observations using amber and magnets have shown us that electromagnetic fields
possess energy and momentum. Fields can impart energy and momentum to particles.
The experiments with motors have shown us that objects can add energy and momentum
to fields. We therefore need to define a state function which allows us to define energy
and momentum for electric and magnetic fields. And since electric and magnetic fields
transport energy, their motion must follow the speed limit in nature.
Hertz and Heaviside defined the state function of fields in two standard steps. The first
step is the definition of the (magnetic) vector potential, which describes the momentum
per charge that the field provides:
p
(34)
A= .
q

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

The gauge field the electromagnetic vector potential

80

2 the description of electromagnetic field evolu tion

Field lines
imagined as
water flow
paddle-wheel

F I G U R E 48 Visualizing the curl of a vector eld. Imagine the eld to be owing air and check whether
the small paddle-wheel rotates; if it does, the local curl is non-zero. The direction of the curl is the
direction of the paddle-wheel axis that yields the highest rotation velocity.

Ref. 45
Challenge 79 ny

A(r) =

1
,
4 r

(37)

where is the magnetic flux inside the solenoid. We see that, in general, the vector potential is dragged along by moving charges. The dragging effect decreases for larger distances.
This fits well with the image of the vector potential as the momentum of the electromagnetic field.
This behaviour of the vector potential around charges is reminiscent of the way honey

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which depends on the radial distance r from the wire and an integration constant r0 . This
expression for the vector potential, pictured in Figure 47, shows how the moving current
produces a linear momentum in the (electro-) magnetic field around it. In the case of a
solenoid, the vector potential circulates around the solenoid. The magnitude obeys

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 78 ny

i.e., that the magnetic field is the curl of the magnetic potential. In most other languages
the curl is called the rotation and abbreviated rot. To visualize what the curl or rotation is,
imagine that the field vectors are the velocity vectors of flowing air. Now put a tiny paddlewheel at a point, as shown in Figure 48. If it turns, the curl is non-zero. The rotation speed
of the paddle-wheel is maximal for some direction of the axis; this maximal speed defines
both the magnitude and the direction of the curl at the point. (The right-hand rule is
implied.) For example, the curl for the velocities of a rotating solid body is everywhere
2, or twice the angular velocity.
The vector potential for a long straight current-carrying wire is parallel to the wire; it
has the magnitude
I
r
A(r) = 0 ln ,
(36)
4
r0

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

and end points, multiplied by its charge. Owing to this definition, the vector potential
has the property that
B = A = curl A
(35)

the description of electromagnetic field evolu tion

Challenge 80 e

81

is dragged along by a spoon moving in it. In both cases, the dragging effect decreases with
distance. However, the vector potential, unlike the honey, does not produce any friction
that slows down charge motion. The vector potential thus behaves like a frictionless liquid.
Inside the solenoid, the magnetic field is constant and uniform. For such a field B we
find the vector potential
1
(38)
A(r) = B r .
2
In this case, the magnetic potential thus increases with increasing distance from the origin.* In the centre of the solenoid, the potential vanishes. The analogy of the dragged
honey gives exactly the same behaviour.
However, there is a catch. The magnetic potential is not defined uniquely. If A(x) is a
vector potential, then the different vector potential

Challenge 81 ny

where (t, x) is some scalar function, is also a vector potential for the same situation.
(The magnetic field B stays the same, though.) Worse, can you confirm that the corresponding (absolute) momentum values also change? This unavoidable ambiguity, called
gauge invariance or gauge symmetry, is a central property of the electromagnetic field.
We will explore it in more detail below.
Not only the momentum, but also the energy of the electromagnetic field is defined
ambiguously. Indeed, the second step in the specification of a state for the electromagnetic field is the definition of the electric potential as the energy U per charge:
=

U
q

(40)

In other words, the potential (x) at a point x is the energy needed to move a unit charge
to the point x starting from a point where the potential vanishes. The potential energy
is thus given by q. From this definition, the electric field E is simply the change of the
potential with position corrected by the time dependence of momentum, i.e.,
E =

A,
t

(41)

is also a potential function for the same situation. This freedom is the generalization of
the freedom to define energy up to a constant. Nevertheless, the electric field E remains
* This is only possible as long as the field is constant; since all fields drop again at large distances because
the energy of a field is always finite also the vector potential drops at large distances.

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Obviously, there is a freedom in the choice of the definition of the potential. If (x) is a
possible potential, then

(42)
(x) = (x)
t

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 44

(39)

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

A (x) = A(x) + ,

82

Ref. 44
Challenge 82 ny

2 the description of electromagnetic field evolu tion

the same for all potentials.


To be convinced that the potentials really are the energy and momentum of the electromagnetic field, we note that for a moving charge we have
d 1 2

m + q = q ( A)
dt 2
t
d
m + qA = q ( A) ,
dt

(43)

which show that the changes of generalized energy and momentum of a particle (on the
left-hand side) are due to the change of the energy and momentum of the electromagnetic field (on the right-hand side).*
In relativistic 4-vector notation, the energy and the momentum of the field appear
together in one quantity. The state function of the electromagnetic field becomes
(44)

and is called the 4-potential. It is easy to see that the description of the field is complete,
since we have
F =dA

or

F = A A

(and

F = A A ) ,

(45)

A = A +

(46)

Challenge 83 e

* This connection also shows why the expression P qA appears so regularly in formulae; indeed, it plays
a central role in the quantum theory of a particle in the electromagnetic field.
** The connection between A and A , the same as for every other 4-vector, was mentioned earlier on; can
you restate it?
*** Choosing a function is often called choosing a gauge; the 4-potential A is also called the gauge field.
These strange terms have historic reasons and are now common to all of physics.

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where = (t, x) is any arbitrarily chosen scalar field. The new field A leads to the same
electromagnetic field, and to the same accelerations and evolutions. The 4-potential A is
thus an overdescription of the physical situation as several different gauge choices correspond to the same physical situation.*** Therefore we have to check that all measurement
results are independent of gauge transformations, i.e., that all observables are gauge invariant quantities. Such gauge invariant quantities are, as we just saw, the fields F and F,
and in general all classical quantities. We add that many theoretical physicists use the
term electromagnetic field loosely for both the quantities F and A .
There is a simple image, due to Maxwell, to help overcoming the conceptual difficulties of the vector potential. It turns out that the closed line integral over A is gauge

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

which means that the electromagnetic field F is completely specified by the 4-potential
A.** But as just said, the 4-potential itself is not uniquely defined. Indeed, any other
equivalent 4-potential A is related to A by the gauge transformation

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

A = (/c, A)

the description of electromagnetic field evolu tion

Challenge 84 e

83

invariant, because
A dx = (A + )dx = A dx .

(47)

In other words, if we picture the vector potential as a quantity allowing us to associate


a number to a tiny ring at each point in space, we get a good, gauge invariant picture of
the vector potential.*
Now that we have defined a state function that describes the energy and momentum
of the electromagnetic field, let us look at what happens in more detail when electromagnetic fields move.
Energy and momenta of the electromagnetic field

Energy =

1
0 (E 2 + c 2 B 2 ) dV .
4
2

(48)

Energy is thus quadratic in the fields.


For the total linear momentum p we obtain

Page 85
Challenge 85 s
Ref. 47

0
E A dV = 0 r (E B) dV ,
4
4

(50)

where A is the magnetic vector potential.


In summary, the electromagnetic field has energy and momenta. Nevertheless, for
most everyday situations, the values are negligibly small, as you may want to check.
* In the part of the text on quantum theory we will see that the exponent of this expression, namely
exp(iq A dx )/, usually called the phase factor, can indeed be directly observed in experiments.
** John Henry Poynting (18521914) introduced the concept in 1884.

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Ref. 46

(49)

The expression inside the integral, is the momentum density. The related vector S = E
B/0 , is called the Poynting vector** and describes the energy flux; it is a vector field and
has the units W/m2 . The Poynting vector is the momentum density divided by c 2 ; indeed,
special relativity implies that the momentum and the energy flow for electromagnetic
fields are related by a factor c 2 . The Poynting vector thus describes the energy flowing
per area per time, in other words, the power per area. As shown below, the Poynting
vector is a part of the energymomentum tensor.
Can you produce a graph of the Poynting vector field for a cable carrying direct current? For a transformer?
For the total angular momentum we have
L=

Challenge 86 e

1
0 E B dV .
4

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

p=

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

All moving entities have energy, momentum and angular momentum. This also applies
to the electromagnetic field. Indeed, the description so far allows us to write the total
energy Energy of the electromagnetic field as

84

2 the description of electromagnetic field evolu tion

The L agrangian of electromagnetism

Challenge 87 ny

The motion of a charged particle and the related motion of the electromagnetic field can
also be described using a Lagrangian, instead of using the three equations given above.
It is not hard to see that the action SCED for a particle in classical electrodynamics can be
symbolically defined by*
SCED = c 2 m d

1
40

F F j A ,

(51)

which in index notation becomes


SCED = mc

(52)

0 2
1 2
E
B dtdV .
2
20

(53)

or, in 3-vector notation


SCED = c 2 m d + (qA q) dtdV +

S = 0 when

x = x +

A = A +

and

provided x () 0 for
A (x ) 0 for

and
Vol. I, page 222
Challenge 88 ny

||

|x | .

(54)

In the same way as in the case of mechanics, using the variational method for the two
variables A and x, we recover the evolution equations for particle position and fields
q
F u
m

F = j 0

, and

F = 0 ,

(55)

which we know already: they are the Lorentz relation and the two field equations. Obviously, they are equivalent to the variational principle based on SCED . Both descriptions
have to be completed by specifying initial conditions for the particles and the fields, as
well as boundary conditions for the latter. We need the first and zeroth derivatives of the
position of the particles, and the zeroth derivative for the electromagnetic field.

Ref. 48

* The product described by the symbol , wedge or hat, and the duality operator have a precise mathematical meaning. The background, the concept of (mathematical) form, carries us too far from our walk.

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b =

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

The new part is the measure of the change or action due to the electromagnetic field.
The pure field change is given by the term F F, and the change due to interaction with
matter is given by the term j A.
The least action principle, as usual, states that the change in a system is always as small
as possible. The action SCED leads to the evolution equations by requiring that the action
be stationary under variations and of the positions and of the fields which vanish at
infinity. In other terms, the principle of least action requires that

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

dxn (s) dxn (s)


ds 41 F F + j A d4 x ,
0
ds
ds
M

the description of electromagnetic field evolu tion

85

With the Lagrangian (51) all of classical electrodynamics can be described and understood. For the rest of our exploration of electrodynamics, we look at some specific topics
from this vast field.
The energymomentum tensor and its symmetries of motion

F j = K = T

(56)

energy
energy flow or
density
momentum density
=

energy flow or
momentum
momentum density
flow density
0 cE B
(0 E 2 + B 2 /0 )/2
0 c
0 Ei E j Bi B j /0
EB
1/2i j (0 E 2 + B 2 /0 )

(57)

where S = E B/0 is the Poynting vector that describes the energy flow density of the
electromagnetic field. The energymomentum tensor T obeys a continuity relation: it
describes a conserved quantity.
We can sum up by stating that in nature, energy and momentum are conserved, if
we take into account the momentum and energy of the electromagnetic field. And the
energymomentum tensor shows again that electrodynamics is a gauge invariant description: the energy and momentum values do not depend on gauge choices.

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u S/c = cp
=
=
cp
T

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

This short equation, which can also be derived from the Lagrangian, contains a lot of
information. In particular, it expresses that every change in energy of the field is the sum
of the energy radiated away (via the energy flow described by the Poynting vector S)
and of change in the kinetic energy of the charges. The equation also makes a similar
statement on the momentum of the electromagnetic field.
The detailed parts of the energymomentum tensor T are found to be

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Vol. II, page 186

We know from classical mechanics that we get the definition of energy and momentum
by using Noethers theorem. In particular, both the definition and the conservation of
energy and momentum arise from the Lorentz symmetry of the Lagrangian. For example,
we found that relativistic particles have an energymomentum vector. At the point at
which the particle is located, it describes its energy and momentum.
Since the electromagnetic field is not a localized entity, like a point particle, but an
extended entity, a full description is more involved. In order to describe the energy
momentum of the electromagnetic field completely, we need to know the flow of energy
and momentum at every point in space, separately for each direction. This makes a description with a tensor necessary, the so-called energymomentum tensor T of the electromagnetic field.
The electric field times a charge is the force on that charge, or equivalently, its momentum increase per time. The generalization for the full electromagnetic field F, and
for the full powerforce (or 4-force) vector K is

86

2 the description of electromagnetic field evolu tion

F I G U R E 49 Which one is the original landscape? (NOAA).

Challenge 90 s
Vol. II, page 84

What is a mirror?

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Challenge 91 s

We will study the strange properties of mirrors several times during our walk. We start
with the simplest one first. Everybody can observe, by painting each of their hands in a
different colour, that a mirror does not exchange right and left, as little as it exchanges
up and down; however, a mirror does exchange right and left handedness. In fact, it does
so by exchanging front and back.
Electrodynamics give a second answer: a mirror is a device that switches magnetic
north and south poles. Can you confirm this with a diagram?
But is it always possible to distinguish left from right? This seems easy: this text is
quite different from a derorrim version, as are many other objects in our surroundings.
But take a simple landscape. Are you able to say which of the two pictures of Figure 49
is the original?
Astonishingly, it is actually impossible to distinguish an original picture of nature
from its mirror image if it does not contain any human traces. In other words, everyday nature is somehow leftright symmetric. This observation is so common that all

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

The energymomentum tensor, like the Lagrangian, shows that electrodynamics is


invariant under motion inversion. If all charges change direction of motion a situation
often confusingly called time inversion they move backwards along the same paths
they took when moving forward. Every example of motion due to electric or magnetic
causes can also take place backwards.
On the other hand, everyday life shows many electric and magnetic effects which are
not time invariant, such as the breaking of bodies or the burning of electric light bulbs.
Can you explain how this fits together?
We also note that charges and mass destroy a symmetry of the vacuum that we mentioned in special relativity: only the vacuum is invariant under conformal transformations. In particular, only the vacuum is invariant under the spatial inversion r 1/r.
Any other physical system does not obey conformal symmetry.
To sum up, electrodynamic motion, like all other examples of motion that we have
encountered so far, is deterministic, slower than c, reversible and conserved. This is no
big surprise. Nevertheless, two other symmetries of electromagnetism deserve special
mention.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 89 e

the description of electromagnetic field evolu tion

Vol. V, page 243

Ref. 49

Challenge 92 s

Challenge 94 s

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Challenge 95 s

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 50

candidate exceptions have been extensively studied. Examples are the jaw movement of
ruminating cows, the helical growth of plants, such as hops, the spiral direction of snail
shells or the left turn taken by all bats when exiting their cave. The most famous example
is the position of the heart. The mechanisms leading to this disposition are still being
investigated. Recent research suggests that the oriented motion of the cilia on embryos,
probably in the region called the node, determines the rightleft asymmetry. The deep
origin of this asymmetry is not yet elucidated, however.
Most human bodies have more muscles on the right side for right-handers, such as
Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, and correspondingly on the left side for left-handers,
such as Charlie Chaplin and Peter Ustinov. This asymmetry reflects an asymmetry of the
human brain, called lateralization, which is essential to human nature.
Another asymmetry of the human body is the hair whirl on the back of the head; the
majority of humans have only one, and in 80 % of the cases it is left turning. But many
people have more than one. Can you name a few more?
The leftright symmetry of nature appears because everyday nature is described by
gravitation and, as we will see, by electromagnetism. Both interactions share an important property: substituting all coordinates in their equations by the negative of their values leaves the equations unchanged. This means that for any solution of these equations,
i.e., for any naturally occurring system, a mirror image is a possibility that can also occur
naturally. Everyday nature thus cannot distinguish between right and left. Indeed, there
are right and left handers, people with their heart on the left and others with their heart
on the right side, etc.
To explore further this strange aspect of nature, try the following experiment: imagine
you are exchanging radio messages with a Martian; are you able to explain to him what
right and left are, so that when you meet, you are sure you are talking about the same
thing?
Actually, the mirror symmetry of everyday nature also called its parity invariance
is so pervasive that most animals cannot distinguish left from right in a deeper sense.
Most animals react to mirror stimuli with mirror responses. It is hard to teach them different ways to react, and it is possible almost only for mammals. The many experiments
performed in this area gave the result that animals have symmetrical nervous systems,
and possibly only humans show lateralization, i.e., a preferred hand and different uses
for the left and the right parts of the brain.
To sum up this digression, classical electrodynamics is leftright symmetric, or parity
invariant. Can you show this using its Lagrangian?
Why do metals provide good mirrors? Metals are strong absorbers of light. Any strong
absorber has a metallic shine. This is true for metals, if they are thick enough, but also
for dye or ink crystals. Any material that strongly absorbs a light wavelength also reflects
it efficiently. The cause of the strong absorption of a metal is the electrons inside it; they
can move almost freely and thus absorb most visible light frequencies.
Here is a puzzle: a concave mirror shows an inverted image; so does a plane mirror
if it is partly folded along the horizontal. What happens if this mirror is rotated around
the line of sight?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 93 s

87

88

2 the description of electromagnetic field evolu tion

What is the difference between electric and magnetic fields?

Vol. V, page 254

Obviously, the standard answer is that electric fields have sources, and magnetic fields
do not; as a result, magnetic fields are small relativistic effects of importance only when
charge velocities are high or when electrical fields cancel out.
For situations involving matter, this clear distinction is correct. Up to the present day,
no particle with a magnetic charge, called a magnetic monopole, has ever been found,
even though its existence is possible in several speculative models of particle physics. If
found, the action (51) would have to be modified by the addition of a fourth term, namely
the magnetic current density. However, no such particle has yet been detected, despite
intensive search efforts.
In empty space, when matter is not around, it is possible to take a completely different
view. In empty space the electric and the magnetic fields can be seen as two faces of the
same quantity, since a transformation such as

Challenge 96 s

m ce .

(59)

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For a long time, it was thought that duality can be used in the search for the final, unified
theory of physics. However, this hope has evaporated. The reason for this failure can be
traced back to a small but ugly fact: the electromagnetic duality transformation changes
the sign of the Lagrangian, and thus of the action. Therefore, electromagnetic duality is
not a real symmetry of nature, and thus does not help to reach a deeper understanding
of electromagnetism.
Duality, by the way, is a symmetry that works only in Minkowski space-time, i.e., in
space-times of 3 + 1 dimensions. Mathematically, duality is closely related to the existence of quaternions, to the possibility of interpreting Lorentz boosts as rotations in 3 + 1
dimensions, and last, but not least, to the possibility of defining other smooth mathematical structures than the standard one on the space R4 . These mathematical connections
are mysterious for the time being; they somehow point to the special role that four spacetime dimensions play in nature. More details will become apparent in the last volume of
our mountain ascent.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

called (electromagnetic) duality transformation, transforms each vacuum Maxwell equation into the other. The minus sign is necessary for this. (In fact, there are even more such
transformations; can you spot them?) Alternatively, the duality transformation transforms F into F. In other words, in empty space we cannot distinguish electric from
magnetic fields. In particular, it is impossible to say, given a field line in vacuum, whether
it is a magnetic or an electric field line.
Matter would be symmetric under duality only if magnetic charges, also called magnetic monopoles, could exist. In that case the transformation (58) could be extended to
ce m

Ref. 51

(58)

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

E cB
B E/c

the description of electromagnetic field evolu tion

89

Could electrodynamics be different?


Ref. 39

Ref. 52

Researchers working on classical electrodynamics still face a fascinating experimental


and theoretical issue: understanding the process of thought. Researchers face two chal* This can be deduced from special relativity, from the reasoning of page 49 or from the formula in the
footnote of page 79 in volume II.

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The brain: the toughest challenge for electrodynamics

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 53

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 53

We saw that electrodynamics is based on three ideas: the conservation of charge, the
speed limit for charges and Coulombs relation. Could any of these be wrong or need
modification?
Experiments imply that the only candidate for modification is Coulombs relation.
Any interaction, such as Coulombs relation (4), which acts, for one given observer, between two particles independently of 3-velocity, must depend on 3-velocity for other inertial observers.* Such an interaction must also depend on the 4-velocity, to ensure the
requirement from special relativity that the 4-acceleration must be 4-orthogonal to the
4-velocity. The simplest case is an interaction in which the acceleration is proportional
to the 4-velocity. Together with the request that the interaction leaves the rest mass constant, we then recover electrodynamics. In fact, the requirements of gauge symmetry and
of relativistic invariance also make it impossible to modify electrodynamics. In short, it
does not seem possible to have a behaviour different from 1/r 2 for a classical interaction.
Maybe a tiny deviation from Coulombs relation is possible? An inverse square dependence implies a vanishing mass of light and light particles, the photons. Is the mass
really zero? The issue has been extensively studied. A massive photon would lead to a
wavelength dependence of the speed of light in vacuum, to deviations from the inverse
square law, to deviations from Ampres law, to the existence of longitudinal electromagnetic waves and more. No evidence for these effects has ever been found. A summary
of these studies shows that the photon mass is below 1053 kg, or maybe 1063 kg. Some
arguments are not universally accepted, thus the limit varies somewhat from researcher
to researcher.
A small non-vanishing mass for the photon would change electrodynamics somewhat. The inclusion of a tiny mass poses no special problems, and the corresponding
Lagrangian, the so-called Proca Lagrangian, has already been studied, just in case.
Strictly speaking, the photon mass cannot be said to vanish. In particular, a photon
with a Compton wavelength of the radius of the visible universe cannot be distinguished
from one with zero mass through any experiment. This gives a limit mass of 1069 kg for
the photon. Photons with such a small mass value would not invalidate electrodynamics
as we know it. We note that the experimental limits are still much larger.
Interestingly, a non-zero mass of the photon would imply the lack of magnetic
monopoles, as the symmetry between electric and magnetic fields would be broken. It is
therefore important on the one hand to try to improve the experimental mass limit for
photons, and on the other hand to explore whether the limit due to the universes size
has any implications for this issue. The question is still open.
In summary, it seems extremely difficult to find modifications of electrodynamics that
do not disagree with experiment. Electrodynamics is fixed once for all.

90

2 the description of electromagnetic field evolu tion

F I G U R E 50 Typing a letter and playing video tennis using thought alone ( Fraunhofer FIRST).

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics


copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Page 232

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lenges in this domain. First, they must find ways to model the thought process. Second,
the technology to measure the currents in the brain must be extended. In both domains,
recent progress has been spectacular.
Important research has been carried out on many levels of thought modelling. For
example, research using computer tomography, PET scans and MRI imaging has shown
that the distinction between the conscious and the unconscious can be measured: it has a
biological basis. Conscious and unconscious thoughts happen in different brain regions.
Psychological processes, such as repression of unpleasant thoughts, can actually be observed in brain scans. Modellers of brain mechanisms are learning that various concepts
of psychology are descriptions for actual physical processes. This research approach is
still in its infancy, but very promising.
About the specific aspects of the working of the brain, such as learning, storage, recognition of shapes, location of sound sources or map formation, modern neurobiology and
animal experimentation have allowed deducing models that make quantitative predictions. More on this will be told below.
On the experimental side, research into magnetoencephalography devices is making
rapid progress. The magnetic fields produced by brain currents are as low as 10 fT, which
require sensors at liquid helium temperature and a good shielding of background noise.
Improving the sensitivity and the spatial resolution of these systems is a central task. Also
computer models and algorithms are making rapid progress.
The whole programme would be complete as soon as, in a distant future, a sensitive
measuring apparatus could detect what is going on inside the brain and then could deduce or read the thoughts of a person from these measurements. Thought reading might
be the most complex of all challenges that science is facing. Clearly, such a feat will require involved and expensive machinery, so that there is no danger for a misuse of the
technique. (There are also good reasons to believe that actual thought reading will never
be possible in this way, due to the lack of localization of cognitive thought inside the
brain and due to the variations in cognitive processing from one person to another.) But
the understanding and modelling of the brain will be a useful technology in numerous
aspects of daily life, especially for the disabled.
On the path towards thought reading, the small progress that has been achieved so far
is already fascinating. Wearing a cap full of electric contacts a so-called braincomputer
interface and looking at a computer screen, it is now possible to type letters using the
power of thought alone. Such a system is shown in Figure 50. The user controls the computer simply by imagining that he turns the arrow on the screen with his right hand.

the description of electromagnetic field evolu tion

Ref. 54

Ref. 55

91

Challenges and fun curiosities about electrodynamics


Not only animals, also plants can feel electric and magnetic fields. At least for magnetic
fields, the sensors seem to use very similar mechanisms to those used by animals and
bacteria.

Ref. 56

Challenge 98 s

Perfectly spherical electromagnetic waves are impossible in nature. Can you show this
using Maxwells equation of electromagnetism, or even without them?

In the past, textbooks often said that the Poynting vector, the electromagnetic energy
flow, was not uniquely defined. Even Richard Feynman talks about this issue in his Lec-

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Mirrors exist in many forms. An important mirror for radio waves is the ionosphere; especially during the night, when certain absorbing layers disappear, the ionosphere allows
to receive radio stations from far away. When the weather is favourable, it is possible to
receive radio stations sending from the antipodes. Another radio mirror is the Moon;
with modern receivers it is possible to receive radio signals and, since a few years, even
television signals reflected by the Moon.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 97 s

If you calculate the Poynting vector for a charged magnet or simpler, a point charge
near a magnet you get a surprising result: the electromagnetic energy flows in circles
around the magnet. How is this possible? Where does this angular momentum come
from?
Worse, any atom is an example of such a system actually of two such systems. Why
is this effect not taken into account in calculations in quantum theory?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

The brain currents created by the imagination process are read out and translated into
computer commands by an electronic device. The system, based on neural network algorithms, works after only 20 minutes of training with a particular person. In this way,
the system allows people who are fully paralysed to communicate with others again. The
system is so fast that it allows playing mental video tennis on a computer screen.
Typing with thought alone is possible because the brain region responsible for the
hand is near the skull, so that signals for hand rotation can be read out with sufficient
spatial resolution by the electrodes on the cap. Researchers know that resolution limitations do not allow reading out the commands for single fingers in this way. For such high
resolution tasks, electrodes still need to be implanted inside the relevant brain region.
However, at present the functional lifetime for such electrodes is only a few months, so
that the dream of controlling machines or even artificial limbs in this way is still distant.
Recent research with braincomputer interfaces suggests that in a not-too distant future a computer might be able to read out a secret number, such as a credit card PIN,
that a person is thinking about. The coming decades will surely yield more such research
results.

92

Challenge 99 s

2 the description of electromagnetic field evolu tion

tures on Physics, in section 27-4. Can you show that there is no such ambiguity in the
Poynting vector, and that those textbooks are all wrong?

Ref. 57

No magnetic charges exist. More precisely, no particles with non-zero magnetic charge
exist. But we can introduce the mathematical quantity magnetic charge nevertheless
it is usually called magnetic pole strength as long as we require that every object always
has equal amounts of opposite magnetic charge values. With this condition, the magnetic charge is the divergence of the magnetization and obeys the magnetostatic Poisson
equation, in a striking parallel to the electric case.

Challenge 100 s

Any wall plug is a dipole driven by an alternating electric field. Why does a wall plug,
delivering 230 V or 100 V at 50 Hz or 60 Hz, not radiate electromagnetic fields?

Challenge 101 s

Are there electromagnetic motors in biological systems?


Summary on electromagnetic field motion

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

In summary, the electromagnetic field carries energy, linear momentum and angular momentum. It is thus appropriate to say that the electromagnetic field moves. The motion of
the electromagnetic field can be visualized as the motion of its electric and its magnetic
field lines. The motion of the electromagnetic field is described by a least action principle.
It conserves energy and momentum. The motion is continuous, relative, reversible and
mirror-invariant.
We are directly lead to ask: what then is the nature of light?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

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Chapter 3

WHAT IS LIGHT?

Ref. 58

he nature of light has fascinated explorers of nature since at least the time of
he ancient Greeks. The answer appeared in 1848, when Gustav Kirchhoff noted
hat the experimental values on both sides of the equation
1
.

0 0

(60)

c = 299 792 458 m/s .

Page 305

The value for c is an integer number, because the meter is nowadays defined in such a
way as to exactly achieve this number.
In 1865, Maxwell summarized all data on electricity and magnetism collected in the
2500 years in his equations. Almost nobody read his papers, because he wrote them using quaternions. The equations were then simplified independently by Heinrich Hertz
and Oliver Heaviside. They deduced the original result of Riemann: in the case of empty
space, the equations of the electromagnetic potentials can be written as
0 0

2
2 2 A x A y 2 A z
+
+
+
=0.
t 2
x 2
y 2
z 2

(62)

This evolution equation is a wave equation, because it admits solutions of the type
A(t, x) = A 0 sin(t kx + ) = A 0 sin(2 f t 2x/ + ) ,

(63)

* Bernhard Riemann (b. 1826 Breselenz, d. 1866 Selasca), important German mathematician. A genial mathematician, he also studied curved space, providing several of the mathematical and conceptual foundations
of general relativity, but then died at an early age.

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A = 0 or, equivalently
Challenge 102 e

(61)

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

agreed within measurement errors. This suggested the answer to the question two thousand years earlier: light is an electromagnetic wave. Ten years later, in 1858, Bernhard
Riemann* proved mathematically that any electromagnetic wave must propagate with
a speed c given by the above equation. Note that the right-hand side contains electric
and magnetic quantities, and the left-hand side is an optical quantity. The expression of
Kirchhoff and Riemann thus unifies electromagnetism and optics. The modern value for
the speed of electromagnetic waves, usually called c from Latin celeritas, is

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c=

94

3 what is light?

F I G U R E 51 White
light travelling
through a glass prism
(photograph by Susan
Schwartzenberg,
Exploratorium www.
exploratorium.edu).

which are commonly called harmonic plane electromagnetic waves. We recall that a wave
in physics is any propagating imbalance, and that a harmonic wave is a wave described
by a sine curve.
Such a harmonic plane electromagnetic wave satisfies equation (62) for any value of
amplitude A 0 , of phase , and of angular frequency , provided the angular frequency
and the wave vector k satisfy the relation
(k) =

or

(k) =

1 2
k .

0 0

(64)

The relation (k) between the angular frequency and the wave vector, the so-called dispersion relation, is the main property of any type of wave, be it a sound wave, a water
wave, an electromagnetic wave, or any other kind.
The specific dispersion relation (64) is linear and implies a phase velocity, the velocity
with which wave crests and troughs move, given by /k = 1/0 0 = c, thus reproducing the result by Kirchhoff and Riemann.
In empty space, experiments confirm that the phase velocity c is independent of the
frequency of the wave. The phase velocity thus characterizes electromagnetic waves, and
distinguishes them from all other types of waves in nature.

To get a clearer idea of electromagnetic waves, we explore their properties. The wave
equation (62) for the electromagnetic field is linear in the field; this means that the sum
of two allowed situations is itself an allowed situation. Mathematically speaking, any superposition of two solutions is also a solution. We therefore know that electromagnetic
waves must show interference, as all linear waves do.
Linearity implies that two waves can cross each other without disturbing each other,
and that electromagnetic waves can travel undisturbed across static electromagnetic
fields.
Linearity also means that every electromagnetic wave can be described as a super-

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What are electromagnetic waves?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

1
k

0 0

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Vol. I, page 257

what is light?

95

space
Electric field
wavelength

Magnetic Field

F I G U R E 52 The general
structure of a plane,
monochromatic and
linearly polarized
electromagnetic wave at
a specic instant of time.

* Heinrich Rudolf Hertz (b. 1857 Hamburg, d. 1894 Bonn), important Hamburger theoretical and experimental physicist. The unit of frequency is named after him. Despite his early death, Hertz was a central

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Page 99

position of harmonic, or pure sine waves, each of which is described by expression


(63). The simplest possible electromagnetic wave, the harmonic plane wave with linear
polarization, is illustrated in Figure 52. Note that for this simplest type of waves, the
electric and the magnetic field are in phase. (Can you prove this experimentally and by
calculation?) The surfaces formed by all points of maximal field intensity are parallel
planes, spaced by (half the) wavelength; these planes move along the direction of the
propagation with the phase velocity.
After Riemann and Maxwell predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves, in the
years between 1885 and 1889, Heinrich Hertz* discovered and studied them. He fabri-

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 54 Heinrich Hertz (18571894).

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 53 A plane, monochromatic and linearly polarized electromagnetic wave, showing the


evolution of the electric eld, the magnetic eld, and again the electric eld, in a further visualization
(Mpg lms Thomas Weiland).

96

3 what is light?

spark
transmitter

receiver 1

receiver 2

F I G U R E 55 A reconstruction of one of the rst transmitters and receivers of electromagnetic waves by


Heinrich Hertz ( Fondazione Guglielmo Marconi).

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figure in the development of electromagnetism, in the explanation of Maxwells theory and in the unfolding of radio communication technology. More about him on page 206 in volume I.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

cated a very simple transmitter and receiver for 2 GHz waves, shown in Figure 55. Such
waves are still used today: cordless telephones and the last generation of mobile phones
work at this frequency though the transmitters and the receivers look somewhat differently nowadays. Such waves are now also called radio waves, since physicists tend to
call all moving force fields radiation, recycling somewhat incorrectly a Greek term that
originally meant light emission.
Today Hertzs experiment can be repeated in a much simpler way. As shown in
Figure 56, a budget of a few euro is sufficient to remotely switch on a light emitting diode
with a gas lighter. (After each activation, the coherer has to be gently tapped, in order to
get ready for the next activation.) Attaching longer wires as antennas and ground allows
this set-up to achieve transmission distances up to 30 m.
Hertz also measured the speed of the waves he produced. In fact, you can also measure the speed at home, with a chocolate bar and a (older) kitchen microwave oven. A
microwave oven emits radio waves at 2.5 GHz not far from Hertzs value. Inside the
oven, these waves form standing waves. Just put the chocolate bar (or a piece of cheese)
in the oven and switch the power off as soon as melting begins. You will notice that the
bar melts at regularly spaced spots. These spots are half a wavelength apart. From the
measured wavelength value and the frequency, the speed of light and radio waves simply
follows as the product of the two.
If you are not convinced, you can measure the speed directly, by telephoning a friend
on another continent, if you can make sure of using a satellite line (choose a low cost

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

battery

what is light?

97

spark transmitter

receiver

F I G U R E 56 The simplest radio transmitter possible, a gas lighter and a wire, together with the simplest
radio receiver possible, built from a battery pack, a light emitting diode, and a simple coherer made
from a ball pen housing, two screws and some metal powder ( Guido Pegna).

Light as an electromagnetic wave

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Challenge 103 s

* Christiaan Huygens (b. 1629 s Gravenhage, d. 1695 Hofwyck) was one of the main physicists and mathematicians of his time. Huygens clarified the concepts of mechanics; he also was one of the first to show that
light is a wave. He wrote influential books on probability theory, clock mechanisms, optics and astronomy.
Among other achievements, Huygens showed that the Orion Nebula consists of stars, discovered Titan, the
moon of Saturn, and showed that the rings of Saturn consist of rock. (This is in contrast to Saturn itself,
whose density is lower than that of water.)
** Where does the energy go in an interference pattern?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 104 s

But the electromagnetic wave equation is much more interesting. The wave equation
confirmed earlier predictions that light itself is an electromagnetic wave, albeit with a
much higher frequency and much shorter wavelength. Let us see how we can check this.
It is easy to confirm the wave properties of light; indeed they were known already long
before Maxwell. In fact, the first to suggest that light is a (kind of) wave was, around the
year 1678, the important physicist Christiaan Huygens.* You can confirm that light is a
wave with your own fingers. Simply place your hand one or two centimetres in front of
your eye, look towards the sky through the gap between the middle and the index finger
and let the two fingers almost touch. You will see a number of dark lines crossing the gap.
These lines are the interference pattern formed by the light behind the slit created by the
fingers. Interference is the name given to the amplitude patterns that appear when several
waves superpose.** The interference patterns depend on the spacing between the fingers.
This experiment therefore allows you to estimate the wavelength of light, and thus, if you
know its speed, its frequency. Can you do this?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

provider). There is about half a second additional delay between the end of a sentence
and the answer of the friend, compared with normal conversation. In this half second,
the signal goes up to the geostationary satellite, down again and returns the same way.
This half second gives a speed of c 4 36 000 km/0.5 s 3 105 km/s, which is close to
the precise value. Radio amateurs who reflect their signals from the Moon can perform
the same experiment and achieve higher precision.
In summary, electromagnetic waves exist and move with the speed of light.

98

3 what is light?

F I G U R E 57 The primary and secondary rainbow, and the supernumerary bows below the primary bow
( Antonio Martos and Wolfgang Hinz).

Ref. 60
Page 116

Challenge 105 ny

Challenge 106 s

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* Thomas Young (1773 Milverton1829), read the bible at two, spoke Latin at four; a doctor of medicine, he
became a professor of physics. He introduced the concept of interference into optics, explaining Newtonian
rings and supernumerary rainbows; he was the first person to determine lights wavelength, a concept that
he also introduced, and its dependence on colour. He was the first to deduce the three-colour vision explanation of the eye and, after reading of the discovery of polarization, explained light as a transverse wave.
In short, Young discovered most of what people learn at secondary school about light. He was a universal
talent: he also worked on the deciphering of hieroglyphs, studied languages and introduced the term IndoEuropean, explored ship building and many engineering problems. Young collaborated with Fraunhofer
and Fresnel. In Britain his ideas on light were not accepted, since Newtons followers crushed all opposing
views. Towards the end of his life, his results were finally made known to the physics community by Fresnel
and Helmholtz.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 61

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 59

Historically, another effect was central in convincing everybody that light was a wave:
supernumerary rainbows, the additional bows below the main or primary rainbow. If we
look carefully at a rainbow, below the main redyellowgreenblueviolet bow, we observe weaker, additional green, blue and violet bows. Depending on the intensity of the
rainbow, several of these supernumerary rainbows can be observed. They are due to interference of light triggered by the water droplets, as Thomas Young showed around 1803.*
Indeed, the repetition distance of the supernumerary bows depends on the radius and
shape of the average water droplets that form them. (Details about the normal rainbows
are given below.) Both supernumerary rainbows and Thomas Young where essential to
convince people that light is a wave. It seems that in those times scientists either did not
trust their own eyes or fingers, or did not have any.
There are many other ways in which the wave character of light can be made apparent.
Maybe the most beautiful is an experiment carried out by a team of Dutch physicists in
1990. They simply measured the light transmitted through a slit in a metal plate. It turns
out that the transmitted intensity depends on the width of the slit. Their surprising result
is shown in Figure 58. Can you explain the origin of the unexpected intensity steps in the
curve?
Numerous other experiments on the creation, detection and measurement of electromagnetic waves were performed between the seventeenth and the twentieth century. For
example, in 1800, William Herschel discovered infrared light using a prism and a thermometer. (Can you guess how?) In 1801, Johann Wilhelm Ritter (17761810) a more than
colourful figure of natural Romanticism, discovered ultraviolet light using silver chloride,
AgCl, and again a prism.

what is light?

99

transmitted light power

(preliminary figure)

slit width

F I G U R E 58 The light power transmitted through a


slit as function of its width.

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Page 104

Ref. 62

Polarization and electromagnetic waves


We are left with one additional question about light. If light oscillates, in which direction does this occur? The answer is hidden in the parameter A 0 in expression (63), but
shown in Figure 52 and Figure 53. The fields in electromagnetic waves oscillate in directions perpendicular to their motion. Therefore, even for identical frequency and phase,
waves can still differ: they can have different polarization directions. For example, the
polarization of radio transmitters determines whether radio antennas of receivers have
to be kept horizontal or vertical. Also for light, polarization is easily achieved, e.g. by

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Ref. 63

The result of all these experiments is that electromagnetic waves, including light, can
be primarily distinguished by their wavelength or frequency. The main categories are
listed in Table 14. For visible light, the wavelength lies between 0.4 m (violet) and 0.8 m
(red). The wavelength of light determines its colour.
At the end of the twentieth century the final confirmation of the wave character of
light became possible. Using quite sophisticated experiments. researchers measured the
oscillation frequency of light directly. The value, between 375 and 750 THz, is as predicted.
The value is so high that its detection was impossible for a long time. But with these
modern experiments the dispersion relation (64) of light has finally been confirmed in
all its details to extremely high precision.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 59 Two Gaussian beams interfering at an angle ( Rdiger Paschotta).

100

3 what is light?

primary
infrared
rainbow

secondary
infrared
rainbow
secondary
visible
rainbow

primary
visible
rainbow

Ref. 64

Ref. 65

Ref. 66

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Challenge 108 s

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 107 d

shining it through a stretched plastic film. When the polarization of light was discovered in 1808 by the French physicist Louis Malus (17751812), it definitively established
the wave nature of light. Malus discovered it when he looked at the strange double images produced by calcite, a transparent crystal found in many minerals. Calcite (CaCO3 )
splits light beams into two it is birefringent and polarizes them differently. That is the
reason that calcite is part of every crystal collection.
If you ever get hold of a piece of transparent calcite, do look through it at something
written on paper. Figure 61 shows two examples. (Can you show that trirefringence, if
defined as the appearance of three images, cannot exist?)
By the way, the human eye is almost unable to detect polarization, in contrast to the
eyes of many insects, spiders, certain birds and certain shrimps. Honey bees use polarization to deduce the position of the Sun, even when it is hidden behind clouds, and use
the effect for navigation. Some beetles of the genus Scarabeus even use the polarization
of moonlight for navigation, and many insects use polarization of sunlight to distinguish
water surfaces from mirages. (Can you find out how?) But in 1844, the Austrian mineralogist Wilhelm Haidinger discovered that the human eye has the same ability: there is
a way to observe the polarization of light with the unaided human eye. The best way to
observe the effect is by looking at a distance of about an armss length on a white LCD
screen and slowly tilt your head. You will note an extremely faint yellow or yellow-blue
pattern, about two fingers wide, that is superimposed on the white background. This
pattern is called polarization brush or Haidingers brush. A rough illustration is given in
Figure 62. The weak effect disappears after a few seconds if the head stops rotating along
the line of sight. Haidingers brush is due to the birefringence of the cornea and the lens
of the human eye, together with the morphology of the macula lutea. The cornea acts as

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 60 The same rainbow


in the visible and in the infrared,
showing how infrared comes
before red ( Stefan Zeiger).

what is light?

101

human eye

polarized light

E
B

2 to 4

cornea
and lens,
with their
radial structure

F I G U R E 62 Haidingers brush and its origin in the human eye.

a radially oriented, colour-dependent polarizer, whereas the yellow spot acts as a radially
oriented analyser. In short, the human eye is indeed able to see the directions in which

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macula

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Haidingers brush
(color intensity
exagerated)

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 61 Birefringence in crystals: calcite lying on crossed lines (top left, crystal size around 4 cm),
rutile lying on an ink spot, photographed along the optical axis (middle) and at an angle to it (top right,
crystal size around 1 cm), and an octagonal sodium vanadate crystal doped with manganese, showing
three different behaviours (bottom, crystal diameter 1.9 cm) ( Roger Weller/Cochise College, Brad
Amos, Martin Pietralla).

102

Light and other electromagnetic waves

Challenge 110 e

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Ref. 67

The experiments so far show that electromagnetic waves exist and move with the same
speed as light. To confirm that light waves are indeed electromagnetic is more difficult.
The most convincing proof would be to repeat Hertzs experiments for light. In Hertzs
experiment, shown in Figure 55, the receiver is a simple open metal circle; when the
wave more precisely, its magnetic field arrives, a spark is generated and the wave is
thus detected. In an almost incredible feat of miniaturization, in 2009, the research group
of Kobus Kuipers managed to make metal rings much smaller than a micrometre, and
repeat the experiment for light. They could clearly discern the maxima and minima of
waves, as well as their polarization. They thus showed that light is an electromagnetic
wave in exactly the same way as Hertz did for radio waves.
Of course, people in the 19th century had less technology at their disposal and were
not easily convinced. They had to look for other ways to show that light is electromagnetic in nature. Now, since the evolution equations of the electrodynamic field are linear,
additional electric or magnetic fields alone do not influence the motion of light. On the
other hand, we know that electromagnetic waves are emitted only by accelerated charges,

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

the electric and magnetic field of light are oscillating.


Haidingers brush, being yellow, is also visible in the blue sky, provided that the air
is clear. (Indeed, it is easily drowned out by multiple scattering, and therefore provides
a test of atmospheric transparency.) In the sky, Haidingers brush is barely the size of a
thumbnail at arms length. (The angular size is the angular size of the macula.) The yellow
arm of the cross points to the Sun, if you look about 90 away from it, high in the sky.
To see it really clearly, hold a polaroid (or polaroid sunglasses) up to look through, and
rotate it about the line of sight.
When polarized light is directed to a transparent medium, the ratio between the reflected and the transmitted light intensity depends on the polarization. The transmitted
intensity can be zero or near zero for certain critical combinations of angles and polarizations. When the engineers at the Mercedes Benz car company forgot this, it cost the
company millions of Euros. Behind the windshield, one of their car models had a sensor
that detects whether it is day or night. The photodiode sensor worked well, except when
the weather was extremely good, with a blue sky and no clouds; in that case, the sensor
gave night as output. The mystery was solved when people recognized that the geometry was near the critical angle, that in such weather, the light from the sky is polarized
and had a low amount of infrared light, at which the wrongly chosen photodiode was
most sensitive. As a result, tens of thousands of cars had to be repaired.
Note that all possible polarizations of light form a continuous set. However, a general plane wave can be seen as the superposition of two orthogonal, linearly polarized
waves with different amplitudes and different phases. Most books show pictures of plane,
linearized electrodynamic waves. Essentially, electric fields look like water waves generalized to three dimensions, the same for magnetic fields, and the two are perpendicular
to each other. Can you confirm this?
Interestingly, a generally polarized plane wave can also be seen as the superposition
of right and left circularly polarized waves. An illustration of a circularly polarized wave
is given in Figure 63.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 109 ny

3 what is light?

what is light?

103

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

* John Kerr (18241907), Scottish physicist, friend and collaborator of William Thomson.

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Page 84

and that all light is emitted from matter. It thus follows that matter is full of electromagnetic fields and accelerated electric charges. This in turn implies that the influence of
matter on light can be understood from its internal electromagnetic fields and, in particular, that subjecting matter to an external electromagnetic field should change the light it
emits, the way matter interacts with light, or generally, the material properties as a whole.
Searching for effects of electricity and magnetism on matter has been a main effort of
physicists for over a hundred years. For example, electric fields influence the light transmission of oil, an effect discovered by John Kerr in 1875.* Also the discovery that certain
gases change colour when subject to a field yielded several Nobel Prizes for physics. With
time, many more influences on light-related properties by matter subjected to fields were
found. An extensive list is given in the table on page 197. It turns out that apart from a
few exceptions the effects can all be described by the electromagnetic Lagrangian (51),
or equivalently, by Maxwells equations (55). In summary, classical electrodynamics indeed unifies the description of electricity, magnetism and optics; all phenomena in these

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 63 Left: the electric eld of a Gaussian, linearly polarized electromagnetic wave (a beam); right:
a Gaussian, circularly polarized beam (QuickTime lm Jos Antonio Daz Navas).

104

3 what is light?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

fields, from the rainbow to radio and from lightning to electric motors, are found to be
different aspects of the evolution of the electromagnetic field.
After two centuries of research, it became clear that light is only a very small section
of the full spectrum of electromagnetic waves, which contains the waves from the smallest
possible to the largest possible wavelengths. The full spectrum is given in the following
table.
TA B L E 14 The electromagnetic spectrum.

Use

3 1018 Hz 1026 m

Lower frequency limit

see the section on cosmology

< 10 Hz

Quasistatic fields

intergalactic,
galactic, stellar and
planetary fields,
brain, electrical fish

Radio waves

electronic devices

> 30 Mm

power transmission,
accelerating and
deflecting cosmic
radiation

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FreWa v e Name Main


Appearance
quency length
properties

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 64 An experiment measuring the electric and magnetic eld of light. Top left: the general
set-up; top right: the antenna, indicated by an arrow; bottom: the measurement data ( Kobus Kuipers)

what is light?

105

Use

10 Hz
50 kHz

30 Mm
6 km

ELW

go round the
nerve cells,
globe, penetrate electromechanical
into water,
devices
penetrate metal

50
500 kHz

6 km
0.6 km

LW

follow Earths
curvature, felt by
nerves (bad
weather nerves)
reflected by night
sky
circle world if
reflected by the
ionosphere,
destroy hot air
balloons
allow battery
operated
transmitters

power transmission,
communication
through metal walls,
communication with
submarines www.vlf.
it
radio
communications,
telegraphy, inductive
heating
radio

MW
500
600 m
1500 kHz 200 m
1.5
200 m10 m SW
30 MHz

VHF

150
2 m0.2 m
1500 MHz

UHF

emitted by Jupiter

remote controls,
closed networks, tv,
radio amateurs, radio
navigation, military,
police, taxi
radio, walkie-talkies,
tv, mobile phones,
internet via cable,
satellite
communication,
bicycle speedometers

15
150 GHz

20 mm
2 mm

night sky, emitted radio astronomy,


by hydrogen atoms used for cooking
(2.45 GHz),
telecommunications,
radar

idem, absorbed
by water

Infrared allows night


vision
1000 3 m IRC or
far
infrared

emitted by every
warm object
sunlight, living
beings

satellite photography
of Earth, astronomy
seeing through
clothes, envelopes
and teeth

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1.5
15 GHz

0.3
100 THz

radio transmissions,
radio amateurs,
spying

idem, line of
sight propagation

Microwaves
idem, absorbed
20 cm2 cm SHF
by water

EHF

emitted by stars

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

15
20 m2 m
150 MHz

emitted by
thunderstorms

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

FreWa v e Name Main


Appearance
quency length
properties

106

3 what is light?

FreWa v e Name Main


Appearance
quency length
properties

Use

100
210 THz

3 m
1.4 m

IRB or

210
384 THz

1400
780 nm

IRA or
penetrates for
near
several cm into
infrared human skin

used for optical fibre


communications for
telephone and cable
television
healing of wounds,
rheumatism, sport
physiotherapy,
hidden illumination

375
750 THz

800
400 nm

Light

525
614 THz

692
789 THz

definition of
straightness,
enhancing
photosynthesis in
agriculture,
photodynamic
therapy,
hyperbilirubinaemia
treatment
780620 nm Red
penetrate flesh
blood
alarm signal, used for
breast imaging Ref. 68
700 nm
Laboratory primary red
filtered tungsten
colour reference for
lamp
printing, painting,
illumination and
displays
620587 nm Orange
various fruit
attracts birds and
insects
587571 nm Yellow
majority of flowers idem; best
background for
reading black text
571488 nm Green maximum eye
algae and plants
highest luminous
sensitivity
efficiency response
(felt brightness) per
light energy for the
human eye
546.1 nm Laboratory primary green mercury lamp
colour reference
488433 nm Blue
sky, gems, water
435.8 nm Laboratory primary blue
433380 nm Indigo,
violet
Ultraviolet

mercury lamp
flowers, gems

colour reference

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614
692 THz

heat (hot light),


lasers & chemical
reactions
e.g. phosphor
oxidation, fireflies
(cold light)

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

484
511 THz
511
525 THz

not (much)
absorbed by air,
detected by the
eye (up to over
900 nm at
sufficient power)

sunlight, radiation
from hot bodies

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

384
484 THz

sunlight

medium
infrared

what is light?

107

FreWa v e Name Main


Appearance
quency length
properties

Use

789
952 THz

380315 nm UVA

seen by certain birds,


integrated circuit
fabrication

0.95
1.07 PHz

315280 nm UVB

1.07
3.0 PHz

280100 nm UVC

3 24 PHz 10013 nm EUV

idem

disinfection, water
purification, waste
disposal, integrated
circuit fabrication
sky maps, silicon
lithography

penetrate
materials

24
131.3 nm
240 PHz
> 240 PHz < 1.2 nm
or > 1 keV

Soft
X-rays
Hard
X-rays

idem

> 12 EHz < 24 pm


or
> 50 keV

-rays

idem

2 1043 Hz 1035 m

Planck limit

emitted by stars,
plasmas and black
holes
synchrotron
radiation
emitted when fast
electrons hit matter

idem

radioactivity,
cosmic rays

imaging human
tissue
idem
crystallography,
structure
determination
chemical analysis,
disinfection,
astronomy

see last volume of this series

The slowness of progress in physics

c=

1
0 0

(65)

is so strange that we should be intrigued whenever we see it. Something essential is missing. The expression states that the speed c is independent of the proper motion of the
observer measuring the electromagnetic field and independent of the speed of the emit-

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Gustav Kirchhoff s and Bernhard Riemanns expression from the 1850s for the speed of
light and all other electromagnetic waves

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

X-rays

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

penetrate 1 mm emitted by Sun,


into skin, darken stars and flames
it, produce
vitamin D,
suppress immune
system, cause
skin cancer,
destroy eye lens
idem, destroy
idem
DNA, cause skin
cancer
form oxygen
emitted by Sun,
radicals from air, stars and welding
kill bacteria,
arcs
penetrate 10 m
into skin

108

3 what is light?

Another look at electromagnetic radiation

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Challenge 111 d

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 69

Electromagnetic waves of lower frequency are commonly used to transmit mobile phone
signals, and television, radio and satellite programs. Like light, radio waves are due to
moving electrons. In everyday life, light is (usually) generated by electrons accelerated
inside atoms or molecules. Radio waves, which have lower frequency and thus larger
wavelength, are more easily generated by electrons that are accelerated in metals roughly
of the size of the wavelength; such pieces of metal are called antennas.
Radio waves emitted by a hand-held device can carry signals round the Earth. In other
words, radio waves have a large range. How is this possible? It turns out that the field
strength of radio waves decreases as 1/r, where r is the distance from the source. The
field strength thus decreases much more slowly than for static fields, which decrease as
1/r 2 . Why is this the case?
The slow 1/r dependence of radio waves can be understood qualitatively from the
drawing shown in Figure 65. It shows the electric field around a charged particle that
undergoes the simplest possible accelerated motion: a bounce on a wall. In fact, the last,
lower diagram is sufficient to show that the transverse field, given by the kink in the
electric field lines, decreases as 1/r. Can you deduce the dependence?
If we perform the construction of the field lines for a charge that undergoes repeated
bounces, we get field lines with regularly spaced kinks that move away from the source.
For a charge undergoing harmonic motion, we get the field lines shown in Figure 66.
The figure thus shows the mechanism of the simplest antenna (or light source) one can
imagine.
The magnitude of the transverse electric field can also be used to deduce the relation
between the acceleration a of a charge q and the radiated electromagnetic power P. First,
the transverse electric field (calculated in the last challenge) has to be squared, to give
the local electric energy density. Then it has to be doubled, to include magnetic energy.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

ting source. In other words, the speed of light is predicted to be independent of the lamp
speed and independent of the observer speed. This is indeed confirmed by all experiments.
In addition, no observer can outrun light. In other words, light does not behave like
a stream of bullets: the speed of bullet depends on the speed of the gun and of the target.
A target can always outrun a bullet, if it moves rapidly enough. The speed of light is a
limit speed.
Experiments confirm that also the speed of radio waves, of X-rays or of -rays is independent of the transmitter and the receiver and has the same value as the speed of light.
All this is contained in expression (65).
In short, the speed c is invariant and is the limit energy speed in nature. Incredibly, nobody explored the consequences of this invariance until Lorentz and a few others started
doing so in the 1890s. The theory of relativity remained undiscovered for two generations! As in so many other cases, the progress of physics was much slower than necessary.
The invariance of the speed of light is the essential point that distinguishes special relativity from Galilean physics. Since every electromagnetic device such as every electric
motor makes use of expression (65), every electromagnetic device is a working proof
of special relativity.

what is light?

109

circle radius is ct, where t is the time


since the bounce took place
actual charge
position
wall
charge position
had it not
bounced

electrical field lines

complete
electrical field lines

Constructing, in three
steps, the electrical
eld around a
charged particle
bouncing from a wall.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 65

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014


free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

F I G U R E 66 The electrical eld around a


particle oscillating in vertical direction
(QuickTime lm Daniel Schroeder).

110

3 what is light?

F I G U R E 67 The electrical eld around


an oscillating dipole (QuickTime lm
Daniel Weiskopf ).

P=

q 2 a2
.
60 c 3

(66)

How does the world look when riding on a light beam?


Ref. 70

You would have no mirror image, like a vampire.


Light would not be oscillating, but would be a static field.
Nothing would move, like in the tale of sleeping beauty.
But also at speeds near the velocity of light observations would be interesting. You would:

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Challenge 112 s

At the end of the nineteenth century, the teenager Albert Einstein read a book series by
Aaron Bernstein discussing the speed of light. The book asked what would happen if an
observer moved at the same speed as light. Einstein thought much about the issue, and
in particular, asked himself what kind of electromagnetic field he would observe in that
case. Einstein later explained that this Gedanken experiment convinced him already at
that young age that nothing could travel at the speed of light, since the field observed
would have a property not found in nature. Can you find out which one he meant?
Riding on a light beam situation would have strange consequences:

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

The total radiated power P thus depends on the square of the acceleration and on the
square of the charge that is being accelerated. This is the so-called Larmor formula. It
shows why radio transmitters need power supplies and allows deducing how large they
need to be. Note that Figure 65 and Figure 66 and also show that transmitter antennas
have a preferred direction of power emission.
Usually, electromagnetic radiation is not produced by oscillating charges, but by oscillating dipoles. A visualization of the electric field is shown in Figure 67. At large distances,
a wave section can be approximated as a plane wave.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Finally, we have to integrate over all angles; this gives a factor of 2/3. In total we get

what is light?

111

see a lot of light coming towards you and almost no light from the sides or from
behind; the sky would be blue/white in the front and red/black behind;
observe that everything around happens very very slowly;
experience the smallest dust particle as a deadly bullet.
Challenge 113 s

Can you think of more strange consequences? It is rather reassuring that our planet
moves rather slowly through its environment, when compared to the speed of light.
Can one touch light?

Ref. 71
Vol. I, page 91

T=

1
EB
0

giving an average T =

1
E B
.
20 max max

(67)

Obviously, light also has a momentum P. It is related to the energy E by


P=

As a result, the pressure p exerted by light on a body is given by


p=

Challenge 116 s

T
(1 + r)
c

(69)

where for black bodies we have that a reflectivity r = 0 and for mirrors r = 1; other bodies
have values in between. What is your guess for the amount of pressure due to sunlight on
a black surface of one square metre? Is this the reason that we feel more pressure during
the day than during the night?
If lasers are not available, rather delicate equipment is needed to detect the momentum or the radiation pressure of light. Already in 1619, Johannes Kepler had suggested in
De cometis that the tails of comets exist only because the light of the Sun hits the small
dust particles that detach from it. For this reason, the tail always points away from the
Sun, as you might want to check at the next opportunity. Today, we know that Kepler
was right; but proving the hypothesis is not easy.
In order to detect the radiation pressure of light, in 1873, William Crookes** invented
* The heaviest object that has been levitated with a laser had a mass of 20 g; the laser used was enormous,
and the method also made use of a few additional effects, such as shock waves, to keep the object in the air.
** William Crookes (b. 1832 London, d. 1919 London), English chemist and physicist, president of the Royal
Society, discoverer of thallium, and believer in spiritualism.

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Challenge 117 e

(68)

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 115 e

E
.
c

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 114 e

If a little glass bead is put on top of a powerful laser, the bead remains suspended in
mid-air, as shown in Figure 68.* This example of optical levitation proves that light has
momentum. Therefore, contrary to what we said in the beginning of our mountain ascent, images can be touched! In fact, the ease with which objects can be pushed even has
a special name. For planets and planetoids, it is called the albedo, and for general objects
it is called the reflectivity, abbreviated as r.
Like each type of electromagnetic field, and like every kind of wave, light carries energy; the energy flow T per surface and time is

112

3 what is light?

light

light

Ref. 72
Ref. 73

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Challenge 118 s

the light mill radiometer. The light mill consists of four thin plates, black on one side
and shiny on the other, that are mounted on a vertical axis, as shown in Figure 70. However, when Crookes finished building it it was similar to those sold in shops today he
found, like everybody else, that it turned in the wrong direction, namely with the shiny
side towards the light! (Why is it wrong?) You can check it by yourself by shining a laser
pointer on to it. The behaviour has been a puzzle for quite some time. Explaining it involves the tiny amount of gas left over in the glass bulb and takes us too far from the
topic of our mountain ascent. It was only in 1901, with the advent of much better pumps,
that the Russian physicist Pyotr Lebedew managed to create a sufficiently good vacuum
to allow him to measure the light pressure with such an improved, true radiometer. Lebedew also confirmed the predicted value of the light pressure and proved the correctness
of Keplers hypothesis about comet tails. Today it is even possible to build tiny propellers

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 68 Levitating a small glass bead with a laser from below and with two opposed horizontal
laser beams ( Mark Raizen, Tongcang Li).

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

light

what is light?

113

Ref. 74

Ref. 75

that start to turn when light shines on to them, in exactly the same way that the wind
turns windmills.
But light cannot only touch and be touched, it can also grab. In the 1980s, Arthur
Ashkin and his research group developed actual optical tweezers that allow one to grab,
suspend and move small transparent spheres of 1 to 20 m diameter using laser beams. It

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

F I G U R E 70 A commercial light mill turns against the light (Wikimedia).

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

light

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 69 The tail of comet McNaught, photographed in Australia in 2007 ( Flagstaffotos).

114

3 what is light?

Light can rotate


macroscopic objects:

Light can rotate


tiny objects, such as
carbon nanotubes:

suspension
wire

F I G U R E 71 Light can
rotate objects ( A.C.
Ferrari)

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Ref. 75

is possible to do this through a microscope, so that one can also observe at the same time
what is happening. This technique is now routinely used in biological research around
the world, and has been used, for example, to measure the force of single muscle fibres,
by chemically attaching their ends to glass or Teflon spheres and then pulling them apart
with such optical tweezers.
But that is not all. In the last decade of the twentieth century, several groups even
managed to rotate objects, thus realizing actual optical spanners. They are able to rotate
particles at will in one direction or the other, by changing the optical properties of the
laser beam used to trap the particle.
In fact, it does not take much to deduce that if light has linear momentum, circularly

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 72 Umbrellas decompose white light: look at a small lamp


through a black umbrella at night ( Wikimedia).

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

circularly
polarized
light beam

what is light?

115

polarized light also has angular momentum. In fact, for such a wave the angular momentum L is given by
Energy
.
(70)
L=

Challenge 119 e
Ref. 76
Challenge 120
Ref. 77
ny

War, light and lies

Challenge 123 e

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Challenge 122 ny

From the tiny effects of equation (69) for light pressure we deduce that light is not an
efficient tool for hitting objects. On the other hand, light is able to heat up objects, as we
can feel in the sun or when the skin is touched by a laser beam of about 100 mW or more.
For the same reason even cheap laser pointers are dangerous to the eye.
In the 1980s, and again in 2001, a group of people who had read too many science
fiction novels managed to persuade the military who also indulge in this habit that
lasers could be used to shoot down missiles, and that a lot of tax money should be spent
on developing such lasers. Using the definition of the Poynting vector and a hitting time
of about 0.1 s, are you able to estimate the weight and size of the battery necessary for
such a device to work? What would happen in cloudy or rainy weather?
Other people tried to persuade NASA to study the possibility of propelling a rocket
using emitted light instead of ejected gas. Are you able to estimate that this is not feasible?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 121 s

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 78

Equivalently, the angular momentum of a wave is /2 times its linear momentum. For
light, this result was already confirmed in the early twentieth century: a light beam can
put certain materials (which ones?) into rotation; in liquids, this is now standard practice.
Two examples are shown in Figure 71. Of course, the whole thing works even better with
a laser beam. In the 1960s, a beautiful demonstration was performed with microwaves.
A circularly polarized microwave beam from a maser the microwave equivalent of a
laser can put a metal piece absorbing it into rotation. Indeed, for a beam with cylindrical symmetry, depending on the sense of rotation, the angular momentum is either
parallel or antiparallel to the direction of propagation. All these experiments confirm
that light also carries angular momentum, an effect which will play an important role in
the quantum part of our mountain ascent.
We note that not for all waves angular momentum is energy per angular frequency.
This is only the case for waves made of what in quantum theory will be called spin 1
particles. For example, for gravity waves the angular momentum is twice this value, and
they are therefore expected to be made of spin 2 particles.
What does this mean for the comet tails mentioned above? The issue was settled definitely in 1986. A satellite was shot up to an altitude of 110 000 km and made to release
a cloud of barium. The cloud was visible from the Earth, and it soon developed a tail
that was visible from Earth: that was the first artificial comet. It turns out that comet
tails shapes are partly due to hitting photons, partly due to the solar wind, and partly to
magnetic fields.
In summary, light can touch and be touched. Obviously, if light can rotate bodies, it
can also be itself rotated. Could you imagine how this can be achieved?

116

3 what is light?

1. Colour-dependent refraction in glass

white
red
green
violet

glass

2. Internal reflection and colour-dependent


refraction in the primary rainbow
white (Sun)
water droplet
40.5

42.4

3. Colour-dependent refraction in the eye:


watch pattern at 1 cm distance

2b. Internal reflection and colour-dependent


refraction in the secondary rainbow
white (Sun)
water droplet
50.3

53.6

F I G U R E 73 Three proofs that white light is a mixture of colours (with exaggerated angle differences):
prism decomposition, rainbow formation and the coloured borders seen on a circular black and white
pattern (photograph by Susan Schwartzenberg, Exploratorium www.exploratorium.edu).

What is colour?

Challenge 125 e

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Challenge 124 s

We saw that radio waves of certain frequencies are visible. Within that range, different frequencies correspond to different colours. (Are you able to convince a friend about this?)
But the story does not finish here. Numerous colours can be produced either by a single
wavelength, i.e., by monochromatic light, or by a mixture of several different colours. For
example, standard yellow can be, if it is pure, an electromagnetic beam of 575 nm wavelength or it can be a mixture of standard green of 546.1 nm and standard red of 700 nm.
The eye cannot distinguish between the two cases; only spectrometers can. In everyday
life, all colours turn out to be mixed, with the exceptions of those of yellow street lamps,
of laser beams and of laboratory spectra. You can check this for yourself, using an umbrella or a compact disc: they decompose light mixtures, but they do not decompose pure
colours, such as those from a laser pointer or an LED display.
In particular, white light is a mixture of a continuous range of colours with a specific

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

red
green
violet

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

violet
green
red

what is light?

Ref. 79

Page 98

Ref. 81

Challenge 127 s
Ref. 80

* Can you guess where the ternary and quaternary rainbows are to be seen? There are rare reported sightings
of them; only two or three photographs exist world-wide. The hunt to observe the fifth-order rainbow is still
open. (In the laboratory, bows around droplets up to the thirteenth order have been observed.) For more
details, see the beautiful website at www.atoptics.co.uk. There are several formulae for the angles of the
various orders of rainbows; they follow from straightforward geometric considerations, but are too involved
to be given here.

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Ref. 82

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 128 s

intensity per wavelength. If you want to check that white light is a mixture of colours
without any light source, simply hold the lower right-hand side of Figure 73 so close to
your eye that you cannot focus the stripes any more. The unsharp borders of the white
stripes have either a pink or a green shade. These colours are due to the imperfections
of the human eye, its so-called chromatic aberrations. Aberrations have the consequence
that not all light frequencies follow the same path through the lens of the eye, and therefore they hit the retina at different spots. This is the same effect that occurs in prisms or
in water drops showing a rainbow.
The left-hand side of Figure 73 explains how rainbows form. Above all, the internal reflection inside the water droplets in the sky is responsible for throwing back the light coming from the Sun, whereas the wavelength-dependent refraction at the airwater surface
is responsible for the different paths of each colour. The first two persons to verify this explanation were Theodoricus Teutonicus de Vriberg (c. 1240 to c. 1318), in the years from
1304 to 1310 and, at the same time, the Persian mathematician Kamal al-Din al-Farisi.
To check the explanation, they did something smart and simple that anybody can repeat
at home. They built an enlarged water droplet by filling a thin spherical (or cylindrical)
glass container with water; then they shone a beam of white light through it. Theodoricus and al-Farisi found exactly what is shown in Figure 73. With this experiment, each
of them was able to reproduce the opening angle of the main or primary rainbow, its
colour sequence, as well as the existence of a secondary rainbow, its observed angle and
its inverted colour sequence.* All these rainbows are found in Figure 57. Theodoricuss
beautiful experiment is sometimes called the most important contribution of natural science in the Middle Ages.
By the way, the shape of the rainbow tells something about the shape of the water
droplets. Can you deduce the connection?
Incidentally, the explanation of the rainbow given in Figure 73 is not complete. It assumes that the light ray hits the water droplet at a specific spot on its surface. If the light
ray hits the droplet at other spots, the rainbows appear at other angles; however, all those
rainbows wash out. Only the visible rainbow remains, because its deflection angles are
extremal. The primary rainbow is, in fact, the coloured edge of a white disk. And indeed,
the region above the primary bow is always darker than the region below it.
Incidentally, at sunset the atmosphere itself also acts as a prism, or more precisely, as
a cylindrical lens affected by spherochromatism. Therfore, especially at sunset, the Sun is
split into different images, one for each colour, which are slightly shifted with respect to
each other; the total shift is about 1% of the diameter. As a result, the rim of the evening
Sun is coloured. If the weather is favourable, if the air is clear up to and beyond the
horizon, and if the correct temperature profile is present in the atmosphere, a colourdependent mirage will appear: for about a second it will be possible to see, after or near
the red, orange and yellow images of the setting Sun, the greenblue image, sometimes
even detached. This is the famous green flash described by Jules Verne in his novel Le

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 126 e

117

118

3 what is light?

F I G U R E 74 A green ash above the setting Sun and one above the Moon, showing also the colour
change of the Moon rim ( Andrew Young and Laurent Laveder/PixHeaven.net).
Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 81, Ref. 83

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Ref. 84

Rayon-vert. The green flash is often seen on tropical beaches, for example in Hawaii, and
from the decks of ships in warm waters.
Even pure air splits white light. However, this effect is not due todispersion, but to
scattering. Wavelength-dependent scattering, mainly Rayleigh scattering, is the reason
that the sky and far away mountains look blue and that the Sun looks red at sunset and
at sunrise. (The sky looks black even during the day from the Moon.) You can repeat this
effect by looking through water at a black surface or at a lamp. Adding a few drops of
milk to the water makes the lamp yellow and then red, and makes the black surface blue
(like the sky seen from the Earth as compared to the sky seen from the Moon) as shown
in Figure 75. More milk increases the effect. For the same reason, sunsets are especially
red after volcanic eruptions.
In the evening, however, the sky is blue for another, far less known reason: at the time
around sunset, the sky is blue mainly because of the ozone layer. Ozone is a blue gas.
Without ozone, the sky would be yellowish during sunsets.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 75 Milk and water simulate the evening sky ( Antonio

Martos).

what is light?

119

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014


free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

In summary, light is, in general, a mixture of wavelengths. As a result, light wavelength


or frequency are not sufficient to describe colour. Colour experts call hue that aspect of
colour that matches most closely the change with wavelength. But every colour has two
additional characteristics. For example, any given colour can be bright or dark; brightness
is a second, independent property of colour. A third independent property of colour is
its saturation; it expresses how strongly a colour differs from white. A strongly saturated
colour is the opposite of a pale, or weakly saturated colour.
Human colour space is three-dimensional. Humans are thrichromatic. Figure 76 illustrates the point. Every colour we see is described by three independent parameters, because the human eye has three types of cones, thus three types of colour-sensitive cells.
This is the reason that any colour selection scheme, for example on a computer, has

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 76 Two of the
many ways to illustrate the
set of all possible human
colours: (top) as mixtures of
red, green and blue values
that increase along the
three coordinate axes, and
(bottom) using hue,
saturation and brightness
value coordinates
( SharkD).

120

Ref. 85

Fun with rainbows

Challenge 129 e
Challenge 130 ny

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Ref. 60

The width of the usual, primary rainbow is 2.25, for the secondary rainbow it is about
twice that value (which is one reason why it is less bright). The width is larger than the
dispersion angle difference given in Figure 73 because the angular size of the sun, about
0.5, has (roughly) to be added on top of the angle difference.
If the droplets are very fine, the rainbow becomes white; it is then called a fogbow.
Such bows are also often seen from aeroplanes. If the droplets are not round, for example
due to strong wind, one can get a so-called irregular or twinned rainbow. An example is
shown in Figure 77.
Light from the rainbow is tangentially polarized. You can check that easily with polarizing sunglasses. During the internal reflection in the water droplets, as the reflection
angle is very near to the angle at which total reflection sets in, light gets polarized. (Why
does this lead to polarization?) More on polarization will be told in the next section.
If the air is full of ice crystals instead of droplets, the situation changes again. One can

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

at least three parameters that can be varied. A modern artist, Tauba Auerbach, even
produced a beautiful book version of the colour space. The number three is also the reason that every display has at least three different types of pixels. These three parameters
do not need to be hue, saturation and brightness value. They can also be taken to be
the intensities of red, green and blue. Many other colour properties can be used to describe colour, such as lightness, chroma, purity, luma and others. Also descriptions with
four and more parameters which then are not independent from each other are used,
especially in the printing industry.
Many birds, reptiles, fish and various insects have four-dimensional colour spaces that
include the ultraviolet; butterflies and pidgeons have five-dimensional colour spaces, and
other bird species have even higher-dimensional colour spaces. Mantis shrimps possibly have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom, with up to twelve-dimensional
colour spaces. (One species of mantis shrimps, Gonodyctylus smithii, can also detect circular and linear light polarization in complete detail.) In contrast to humans and apes,
most mammals have only two-dimensional colour spaces. Also colour-blind persons can
have lower-dimensional colour spaces. In other terms, the number of dimensions of the
perceied colour space is not a property of light, nor a property of nature, but a specific
property of our human eyes. Colours in nature and colours perceived by humans differ.
The is no colour space in nature.
Colours in nature and colours in human perception differ in an additional way, discovered by linguists. In human language, colours have a natural order. All people of the
world, whether they come from the sea, the desert or the mountains, order colours in
the following sequence: 1. black and white, 2. red, 3. green and yellow, 4. blue, 5. brown,
6. mauve, pink, orange, grey and sometimes a twelfth term that differs from language to
language. (Colours that refer to objects, such as aubergine or sepia, or colours that are
not generally applicable, such as blond, are excluded in this discussion.) The precise discovery is the following: if a particular language has a word for any of these colours, then
it also has a word for all the preceding ones. The result also implies that people use these
basic colour classes even if their language does not have a word for each of them. These
strong statements have been confirmed for over 100 languages.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 86

3 what is light?

what is light?

121

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics


free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

then get additional images of the sun in the direction of the sun. They are called parhelia,
sometimes also or sundogs. This happens most clearly with no wind, if the crystals are
all oriented in the same direction. In that case one can take photographs such as the one
shown in Figure 78.
Rare bows and other astonishing atmospheric effects are best explored on the website providing the optical picture of the day at www.atoptics.co.uk/opod.htm. There one
can find third- and fourth-order rainbows, fogbows that include supernumerary bows,

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 77 Five rare types of rainbows: a fogbow (top left), an irregular, split rainbow in a windy
situation due to non-spherical rain drops (top right, shown with increased colour saturation), a six-fold
rainbow (middle left), a red rainbow at sunset (middle right), and a moonbow, created by the Moon,
not by the Sun, and brightened digitally ( Michel Tournay, Eva Seidenfaden, Terje Nordvik, Zhu XiaoJin
and Laurent Laveder).

122

3 what is light?

F I G U R E 78 A composite photograph showing


the parhelia, the light pillars, the halo and the
upper tangent arc formed by ice crystals in the
air, if all are oriented in the same direction ( Phil
Appleton).

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

What is the speed of light? Again


Physics talks about motion. Talking is the exchange of sound; and sound is an example of
a signal. A (physical) signal is the transport of information using the transport of energy.

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

lunar fogbows, rainbows whose secondary bow has supernumeraries, irregular rainbows,
moonbows, circumzenithal arcs, Suns halos, Suns pillars, green flashes, and much more.
The pictures present the beauty of light in nature and all the effects are also explained
in detail.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 79 A rare circumzenithal arc formed by hexagonal ice crystals in upper regions of the
atmosphere ( Paul Gitto).

what is light?

123

F I G U R E 80 A visualisation of group velocity


(blue) and phase velocity (red) for different
types of waves (QuickTime lm ISVR,
University of Southhampton).

where k0 is the central wavelength of the wave packet. We observe that = c(k)k =

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Ref. 87

For example, the phase velocity determines interference phenomena. Light in a vacuum
has the same phase velocity ph = c for all frequencies. Are you able to imagine an experiment to test this to high precision?
On the other hand, there are cases where the phase velocity is greater than c, most
notably when light travels through an absorbing substance, and when at the same time
the frequency is near to an absorption maximum. In these cases, experiments show that
the phase velocity is not the signal velocity. For such situations, a better approximation
to the signal speed is the group velocity, i.e., the velocity at which a group maximum will
travel. This velocity is given by
d
,
gr =
(72)
dk k0

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 131 s

There are no signals without a motion of energy. Indeed, there is no way to store information without storing energy. To any signal we can thus ascribe a propagation speed.
The highest possible signal speed is also the maximal velocity of the general influences,
or, to use sloppy language, the maximal velocity with which effects spread causes.
If the signal is carried by matter, such as by the written text in a letter, the signal
velocity is then the velocity of the material carrier, and experiments show that it is limited
by the speed of light.
For a wave carrier, such as water waves, sound, light or radio waves, the situation is less
evident. What is the speed of a wave? The first answer that comes to mind is the speed
with which wave crests of a sine wave move. This already introduced phase velocity is
given by the ratio between the frequency and the wavelength of a monochromatic wave,
i.e., by

ph = .
(71)
k

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Vol. I, page 268

124

3 what is light?
v ph

v gr
v So
v fr

F I G U R E 81 The denition of
the important velocities in
wave phenomena, including
Sommerfelds front velocity and
the forerunner velocity.

2ph / implies the relation

Ref. 88

This means that the sign of the last term determines whether the group velocity is larger
or smaller than the phase velocity. For a travelling group, as shown by the dashed line
in Figure 81, this means that new maxima appear either at the end or at the front of the
group. Experiments show that this is only the case for light passing through matter; for
light in vacuum, the group velocity has the same value gr = c for all values of the wave
vector k.
You should be warned that many publications are still propagating the incorrect statement that the group velocity in a material is never greater than c, the speed of light in
vacuum. Actually, the group velocity in a material can be zero, infinite or even negative;
this happens when the light pulse is very narrow, i.e., when it includes a wide range of
frequencies, or again when the frequency is near an absorption transition. In many (but
not all) cases the group is found to widen substantially or even to split, making it difficult to define precisely the group maximum and thus its velocity. Many experiments
have confirmed these predictions. For example, the group velocity in certain materials
has been measured to be ten times that of light. The refractive index then is smaller than
1. However, in all these cases the group velocity is not the same as the signal speed.*
What then is the best velocity describing signal propagation? The German physicist
Arnold Sommerfeld** almost solved the main problem in the beginning of the twentieth
century. He defined the signal velocity as the velocity So of the front slope of the pulse, as
* In quantum mechanics, SchrdingerSchrdinger, Erwin proved that the velocity of an electron is given
by the group velocity of its wave function. Therefore the same discussion reappeared in quantum theory, as
we will find out in the next volume of our mountain ascent.
** Arnold Sommerfeld (b. 1868 Knigsberg, d. 1951 Munich) was a central figure in the spread of special and
general relativity, of quantum theory, and of their applications. A professor in Munich, an excellent teacher
and text book writer, he worked on atomic theory, on the theory of metals and on electrodynamics, and
was the first to understand the importance and the mystery around Sommerfelds famous fine structure
constant.

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Vol. IV, page 85

(73)

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 132 ny

d
d
= ph ph .
dk k0
d

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

gr =

what is light?

Ref. 87

However, as in the case of the front velocity, in the case of the energy velocity we have
to specify the underlying averaging procedure, denoted by , i.e., whether we mean the
energy transported by the main pulse or by the front of it. In vacuum, neither is ever
greater than the speed of light.* (In general, the velocity of energy in matter has a value
slightly different from Sommerfelds signal velocity.)
In recent years, the progress in light detector technology, allowing one to detect even
the tiniest energies, has forced scientists to take the fastest of all these energy velocities
to describe signal velocity. Using detectors with the highest possible sensitivity we can
use as signal the first point of the wave train whose amplitude is different from zero,
i.e., the first tiny amount of energy arriving. This points velocity, conceptually similar
to Sommerfelds signal velocity, is commonly called the front velocity or, to distinguish it
even more clearly from Sommerfelds case, the forerunner velocity. It is simply given by
fr = lim

Challenge 135 s

Ref. 89
Ref. 90

(75)

The forerunner velocity is never greater than the speed of light in a vacuum, even in
materials. In fact it is precisely c because, for extremely high frequencies, the ratio /k is
independent of the material, and vacuum properties take over. The forerunner velocity is
the true signal velocity or the true velocity of light. Using it, all discussions on light speed
become clear and unambiguous.
To end this section, here are two challenges for you. Which of all the velocities of light
is measured in experiments determining the velocity of light, e.g. when light is sent to
the Moon and reflected back? And now a more difficult one: why is the signal speed of
light inside matter less than the speed in vacuum, as all experiments show?

* Signals not only carry energy, they also carry negative entropy (information). The entropy of a transmitter increases during transmission. The receiver decreases in entropy (but less than the increase at the
transmitter, of course).
Note that the negative group velocity implies energy transport against the propagation velocity of light.
This is possible only in energy loaded materials.

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Challenge 134 s

.
k

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 133 s

shown in Figure 81. The definition cannot be summarized in a formula, but it does have
the property that it describes signal propagation for almost all experiments, in particular
those in which the group and phase velocity are larger than the speed of light. When
studying its properties, it was found that for no material is Sommerfelds signal velocity
greater than the speed of light in vacuum.
Sometimes it is conceptually easier to describe signal propagation with the help of
the energy velocity. As previously mentioned, every signal transports energy. The energy
velocity en is defined as the ratio between the energy flow density S, i.e., the Poynting
vector, and the energy density W, both taken in the direction of propagation. For electromagnetic fields the only ones fast enough to be interesting for eventual superluminal
signals this ratio is
P
en =
.
(74)
W
Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 87

125

126

3 what is light?

Signals and predictions

Ref. 91

If the rate at which physics papers are being


published continues to increase, physics
journals will soon be filling library shelves
faster than the speed of light. This does not
violate relativity since no useful information is
being transmitted.
David Mermin

Page 306
Ref. 92

Challenge 136 e

Gamma rays, X-rays, light and radio waves are moving electromagnetic waves. All exist
in empty space. What is oscillating when light travels? Maxwell himself called the oscillating medium the aether. The properties of the oscillating medium that are measured in
experiments are listed in Table 15. The strange numerical values are due to the definition
of the units henry and farad.
The last item of Table 15 is the most important: despite intensive efforts, nobody has
been able to detect any motion of the so-called aether. In particular, there is no motion
of the aether relative to the vacuum. In other words, even though the aether supposedly
oscillates, it does not move. Together with the other data, all these results can be summed
up in one sentence: there is no way to distinguish the aether from the vacuum.
Sometimes one hears that certain experiments or even the theory of relativity show
that the aether does not exist. There is a lot of truth in this statement; in fact, experiments
show something even more important: the aether is indistinguishable from the vacuum.
This statement is true in all cases. For example, we found out in the section on general
relativity that a curved vacuum can move; but the aether still remains indistinguishable
from it.* Also quantum field theory confirms the identity of aether and vacuum.
* Historically, the term aether has been used as an expression for several different ideas, depending on the
author. First of all it was used for the idea that a vacuum is not empty, but full; secondly, that this fullness
can be described by mechanical models, such as gears, little spheres, vortices, etc.; thirdly, it was imagined
that the aether is a substance, similar to matter. All these ideas are put to rest by relativity. Nevertheless,

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Ref. 93

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Aether good-bye

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

When one person reads a text over the phone to a neighbour who listens to it and maybe
repeats it, we speak of communication. For any third person, the speed of communication is always less than the speed of light. But if the neighbour already knows the text,
he can recite it without having heard the readers voice. To the third observer such a
situation appears to imply motion that is faster than light. Prediction can thus mimic
communication and, in particular, it can mimic faster-than-light (superluminal) communication. Such a situation was demonstrated most spectacularly in 1994 by Gnter
Nimtz, who seemingly transported music all music is predictable for short time scales
through a faster-than-light system. To distinguish between the two situations, we note
that in the case of prediction, no transport of energy takes place, in contrast to the case
of communication. In other words, the definition of a signal as a transporter of information is not as useful and clear-cut as the definition of a signal as a transporter of energy. In
the above-mentioned experiment, no energy was transported faster than light. The same
distinction between prediction on the one hand and signal or energy propagation on the
other will be used later to clarify some famous experiments in quantum mechanics.

what is light?

127

TA B L E 15 Experimental properties of at, classical vacuum, thus

neglecting all quantum effects and all effects of general relativity.

P h y s i c a l p r o p e r t y E x p e r i m e n t a l va l u e
Permeability
Permittivity
Wave impedance/resistance
Conformal invariance
Spatial dimensionality
Topology
Friction on moving bodies
Components
Mass and energy content
Motion

Challenges and fun curiosities about light, polarization and


the geometric phase
Challenge 138 s

Since light is a wave, something must happen if it is directed to a hole less than its wavelength in diameter. What exactly happens?

Challenge 139 s

On a sunny day at moderate latitudes on the Earth, sunlight has a power density of
1 kW/m2 . What is the corresponding energy density and what are the average electric
and magnetic fields?
these issues will reappear in the last part of our mountain ascent, when the description of the vacuum itself
is explored.
* We will find a way to explain the properties of vacuum at the end of our adventure.
** In 2013, the German Physical Society published an official expert opinion stating that electromagnetic
waves do not need vacuum as carrier. The society also wants all physics teachers to tell this false statement
to their pupils. Physicists are still laughing.

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copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 137 d

What then is oscillating in the case of electromagnetic waves? We now have a simple
answer to this old question: the vacuum. The vacuum is the carrier, or carrier medium,
of electromagnetic waves. The flat, Lorentz-invariant vacuum carries waves, even though
it cannot move and it does not provide a favourite coordinate system. Flat vacuum is
thus something special,* and it is also acceptable to avoid the terms carrier or medium
altogether. In some bizarre clubs it is even compulsory to do so. However, this avoidance
is impossible in general relativity, as we have seen, and is equally impossible in quantum
field theory, as we will find out.**
In short, experiments in the domain of special relativity have abolished the aether: it is
a superfluous concept and we will drop it from our walk from now on. On the other hand,
we have not yet finished the study of the vacuum; vacuum will keep us busy for the rest
of our walk, starting with the following part of our ascent, on quantum physics. In fact,
quantum physics shows that all experimental values in Table 15 require amendments.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 93

0 =1.3 H/m
0 =8.9 pF/m
Z0 = 376.7
applies
3
R3
none
none
none
none

128

3 what is light?

Challenge 140 e

Electrodynamics shows that light beams always push; they never pull. Can you confirm
that tractor beams are impossible in nature?

It is well known that the glowing material in light bulbs is tungsten wire in an inert gas.
This was the result of a series of experiments that began with the grandmother of all
lamps, namely the cucumber. The older generation knows that a pickled cucumber, when
attached to the 230 V of the mains, glows with a bright green light. (Be careful; the experiment is dirty and dangerous.)

Ref. 95

Could light have a tiny mass, and move with a speed just below the maximal speed possible in nature? The question has been studied extensively. If light had mass, Maxwells
equations would have to be modified, the speed of light would depend on the frequency
and on the source and detector speed, and longitudinal electromagnetic radiation would
exist. Despite a promise for eternal fame, no such effect has been observed.

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Challenge 141 s

If the light emitted by the headlights of cars were polarized from the bottom left to the
upper right (as seen from the cars driver) one could vastly improve the quality of driving
at night: one could add a polarizer to the wind shield oriented in the same direction. As
a result, a driver would see the reflection of his own light, but the light from cars coming
towards him would be considerably dampened. Why is this not done in modern cars?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

The wave impedance of the vacuum of 376.7 has practical consequences. If an electromagnetic wave impinges on a large, thin, resistive film along the normal direction, the
numerical value of the film resistance determines what happens. If the film resistance is
much larger than 376.7 per square, the film is essentially transparent, and the wave
will be transmitted. If the film resistance is much lower than 376.7 per square, the film
is essentially a short circuit for the wave, and the wave will be reflected. Finally, if the film
resistance is comparable to 376.7 per square, the film is impedance-matched and the
wave will be absorbed.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 94

Light beams have an effective temperature and entropy. Though not often discussed
nowadays, the thermodynamics of light has been explored in great detail by Max von
Laue (b. 1879 Koblenz, d. 1960 Berlin) in the years between 1900 and 1906. Von Laue
showed that usual light propagation in empty space is a reversible process and that the
entropy of a beam indeed remains constant in this case. When light is diffracted, scattered
or reflected diffusively, the effective temperature decreases and the entropy increases. The
most interesting case is interference, where entropy usually increases, but sometimes decreases.

what is light?

129

source

detectors

mirrors
beam
splitter

beam
splitter
two identical
photons

possible
light
paths

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics


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A beam of light can be polarized. The direction of polarization can be changed by sending
the light through materials that are birefringent, such as liquid crystals, calcite or stressed
polymers. But polarization can also be changed with the help of mirrors. To achieve such
a polarization change, the path of light has to be genuinely three-dimensional; the path
must not lie in a plane.
To understand the rotation of polarization with mirrors, the best tool is the so-called
geometric phase. The geometric phase is an angle that occurs in three-dimensional paths
of any polarized wave. The geometric phase is a general phenomenon that appears both
for light wave, for wave functions, and even for transverse mechanical oscillations. To
visualize geometric phase, we look at the Figure 83.
The left image of Figure 83 can be seen as paper strip or a leather belt folded in space,

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 82 A conventional two-dimensional (Mach-Zehnder) interferometer, with sides of equal


lengths, and its outputs A and B. Light exits in direction A, the direction of constructive interference
(photo Flix Dieu and Gal Osowiecki).

130

3 what is light?

An object moving along the path A 1 B 2 C 3 D that is always oriented


perpendicular to the path (thus undergoing parallel transport) acquires a
rotation if the path is three-dimensional: the geometric phase.
The same happens with polarized light.

z
2
B
C
final position
and final
orientation

2
D

initial position
and initial
orientation

3
C

A, D

initial
and
final
orientation

1
x

Ref. 97

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Vol. I, page 129

with a bright and a dark coloured side. It is not a surprise that the orientation of the strip
at the end differs from the start. Imagine to follow the strip with the palm of your hand
flat on it, along its three-dimensional path. At the end of the path, your arm is twisted.
This twist angle is the geometric phase induced by the path.
Instead of a hand following the paper strip, we now imagine that a polarized light
beam follows the path defined by the centre of the strip. At the bends, mirrors change
the motion of the light, but at each tiny advance, the polarization remains parallel to the
polarization just before. One speaks of parallel transport. The result for light is the same
as for the belt: At the end of the path, the polarization of the light beam has been rotated.
In short, parallel transport in three dimensions results in a geometric phase. In particular,
it is thus possible to rotate the polarization of a beam of light with the help of mirrors
only.
Also transverse mechanical oscillations work in this way. When a Foucault pendulum
oscillates, its path a segment of a circle due to the rotation of the Earth is threedimensional. The direction of oscillation akin to the polarization of the light or the
orientation of the paper strip changes along the path.
Since wave functions in quantum mechanics are also described by a transverse phase,

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 83 Left: a three-dimensional path with an object that behaves like polarization. The bends 1, 2
and 3 could be induced by mirrors. Right: the rotation angle of the polarization is given by the solid
angle enclosed by the path.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

what is light?

Vol. IV, page 88

Challenge 142 ny

Ref. 98

Ref. 96

Maxwells equations of the electromagnetic field are 150 years old. Is all about them
known? Probably not. For example, only in the 1990s Antonio Raada discovered that

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Challenge 144 s

An interferometer is a device that uses the interference of light to study the properties
of a light beam. A common interferometer, the Mach-Zehnder interferometer, is shown
in Figure 82. If all sides have equal length, light interferes constructively in the output
direction A and destructively in the other output direction B. Thus light exits in direction
A.
Only in the 1990s people started asking what would happen in three-dimensional interferometers, such as the one shown in Figure 84. To clarify the situation, a few points
are necessary. First, we need to specify the polarization of the light used, and recall that
only light of the same polarization can interfere. Secondly, to simplify the discussion, we
assume that the mirrors are of a special type (namely corner cubes based on total refraction) so that, in contrast to usual mirrors, they conserve polarization. Thirdly, we assume
that all edges have equal length. Can you deduce which exits are bright in the two cases
of Figure 84?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 143 s

they show similar effects when the follow three-dimensional paths. The Aharonov-Bohm
effect is an example for a situation where a three-dimensional path leads to phase change.
The other, right-hand drawing in Figure 83, illustrating the so-called sphere of directions, shows how to calculate the angle of rotation due to a specific path. The geometric
phase turns out to be the solid angle enclosed by the path. In short, the geometric phase
angle is given by the enclosed solid angle. With this result, the geometric phase has no
mysteries any more. (For paths that are not closed on the sphere of directions, the calculation can still be carried out by suitably closing the path on the sphere.) A pretty case
is the experiment in which polarized light is fed into a helically coiled optical fibre. In
this case, the geometric phase is fixed by the length of the fibre and the pitch length of
the helix. Effects of the geometric phase have also been observed in molecules, in nuclei,
neutron beams, in interferometers of all kind, in particle accelerators, in gyroscopes, in
general relativity and in many other settings.
Historically, the geometric phase has been discovered independently by many people
in different fields of physics. The researcher who understood its general importance
in quantum physics was Michael Berry in 1983, but the phase was known in quantum
physics, optics and mechanics long before, among others through the work in nuclear
physics by Christopher Longuet-Higgins in the 1950s, through the work on light by the
young genius Shivaramakrishnan Pancharatnam also in the 1950s, through the work on
molecules by Alden Mead in the 1970s, and, of course, through the mentioned Foucault
pendulum from 1851. But also the errors in the south-pointing carriage, which we mentioned before, are due to the geometric phase. Following Michael Berry, the phenomenon
is now called the geometic phase. Older expressions, such as adiabatic phase, topological
phase, quantal phase, Berrys phase and various other terms are not used any more.
After this excursion, here is a challenge of the real world. What is the smallest number
of mirrors needed in a device to change the polarization of a light beam that exits the
device in the same direction as it came in?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Vol. I, page 214


Vol. I, page 195

131

132

3 what is light?

Beam
in

Polarization

Beam
in

Polarization

To simplify the exploration, the mirrors and beam splitters used above conserve handedness :

Summary on light
In summary, radio waves, infrared light, visible light, ultraviolet light, X-rays and gamma
rays are electromagnetic waves whose dispersion relation in vacuum is = ck, where
c = 299 792 458 m/s. Electromagnetic waves carry energy, linear momentum and angular momentum, and move faster than any material object. The speed of electromagnetic
waves c is the (local) limit energy speed in nature.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 99

the equations have solutions with knotted field lines. The most spectacular solutions so
far have been published by Arrays and Trueba. More such surprising results are probably waiting to be found.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 84 Two different three-dimensional interferometers, with all edges of equal lengths, the
mirrors/beam splitters used, and their outputs A and B. Where does the light exit?

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Chapter 4

IMAGES AND THE EYE OPTICS

Ways to produce images

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Ref. 101

Photography uses a light source, lenses and film or another large area detector. Photography can be used in reflection, in transmission, with phase-dependence, with
various illuminations, and with light sources and detectors for various wavelengths.
Optical microscopy uses a light source, lenses and film (or another large area detector).
If the illumination is through the sample, in transmission, one speaks of bright-field
microscopy. (Variations use coloured or polarizing filters.) If the illumination is from
the side, one speaks of oblique microscopy. If the illumination is confined to an outer
ring of light, one speaks of dark-field microscopy. An even more elaborate illumination system, using plane waves, allows phase-contrast microscopy. (It was invented by
Frits Zernike in the 1930s and earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1953.) If one
splits a polarized illumination beam into two components that pass the sample at
close (but not identical) locations, and then recombines them afterwards, one speaks
of differential interference contrast microscopy. If a sample is treated with a fluorescent dye, the illuminating light is filtered out, and only the fluorescence is observed,
one speaks of fluorescence microscopy. The image quality of expensive microscopes
can be further improved with the help of a computer, with the help of deconvolution
techniques.
Telescopy is used most of all in geodesy and astronomy. The most advanced astronomical telescopes can compensate star images for the effects of the turbulence of

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Producing images is an important part of modern society. The quality of images depends
on the smart use of optics, electronics, computers and materials science. Despite the
long history of optics, there are still new results in the field. Images, i.e., two or threedimensional reproductions of a physical situation, can be taken by at least six groups of
techniques:

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 100

ptics is the field that explores the production of images. In particular,


ptics is the study and use of light production, of light transport, and
f light and image detection. With this definition of optics, we note directly
that classical electrodynamics can describe only the transport of light. The production
and the detection of light are always quantum effects. Every lamp is a device based on
quantum physics. Every detector of light, including the eye, is based on quantum physics.
Therefore, in this chapter we mainly explore the motion of light and the way it forms
images, and give only a short introduction into light sources and the eye.

134

4 images and the eye optics

F I G U R E 85 An X-ray photographic image of a ten-year old


boy with polydactyly (courtesy Drgnu23/Wikimedia).

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014


free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Each imaging method can be used with radio waves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet
light, X-rays or gamma rays. And in all imaging methods, the race is for images with
the highest resolution possible and for images with the shortest shutter times possible,
in order to produce films. We start our overview of imaging techniques with the most
important tool: light sources.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

the atmosphere; they can also take images at various wavelengths, ranging from radio
frequencies, infrared, visible, ultraviolet to X-rays. Simple telescopes are lens-based;
high-performance telescopes are usually mirror-based. X-ray telescopes have to be
operated outside the atmosphere, to avoid absorption by air, for example on rockets,
satellites or high-altitude balloons. They are all mirror based.
Scanning techniques construct images point by point through the motion of the
detector, the light source or both. There are numerous scanning microscopy techniques: confocal laser scanning microscopy, the fibre-based near-field scanning optical
microscopy, and combinations of them with fluorescence techniques or various deconvolution techniques. Many of these scanning microscopy techniques allow resolutions much lower than the wavelength of light, a feat that is impossible with conventional microscopic techniques.
Tomography, usually performed in transmission, uses a source and a detector that are
rotated together around an object. This technique, effectively a specialized scanning
technique, allows imaging cross sections of physical bodies. For example, light tomography is a promising technique, without any health risk, for breast cancer detection.
Holography uses lasers and large area detectors and allows taking three-dimensional
images of objects. Such images seem to float in space. Holography can be used in
reflection or in transmission.

light sources

135

2.50

Solar Radiation Spectrum


AM0 Direct normal (black body at 5780 K)

Irradiance (W m-2 nm-1)

2.00

AM0 Direct normal (Gueymard 2004)


AM1.5 Direct normal (ASTM G 173)
O3

1.50

1.00
H2O

0.50

O2,
H2O

O3

H2O
H2O, CO2
H2O, CO2

H2O, CO2

0.00
200

400

600

800 1000 1200 1400 1600 1800 2000 2200 2400 2600
Wavelength (nm)

F I G U R E 86 A black body spectrum at 5780 K, the solar spectrum above the atmosphere in direction of

the Sun, with 1350 W/m2 , and the spectrum with 1.5 air masses in between, with 844 W/m2 , giving
roughly the spectrum of a typical sunny day at sea level; the gases responsible for the absorption bands
are also shown ( Chris Gueymard).

Without radiation sources, there would be no images. All imaging techniques need
sources of radiation. In the domain of optics, the most important light sources of visible
and infrared light are glowing objects, such as candles, flashlamps or fluorescent lamps.
Physically speaking, these light sources are approximations of black bodies. Let us see
why they are used.
Why can we see each other? Black bodies and the temperature of
light

A black body is a body that absorbs all radiation impinging on it.


In other words, a black body is a body without reflection or transmission of radiation.
Black bodies are an idealization; above all, they are only black at low temperature. With
increasing temperature, black bodies glow or shine in black, brown, red, orange, yellow,
white or blue.

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Physicists have a strange use of the term black. A body that glows perfectly is called a
black body. In this domain, perfect means that the surface of the body has no effect on
its colour.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

light sources

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

H2O

136

Ref. 102

Ref. 103

u(, T) =

Ref. 104

(76)

He made this important discovery, which we will discuss in more detail in the quantum
part of our mountain ascent, simply by comparing this curve with experiment. The new
constant h is called the quantum of action or Plancks constant and turns out to have the
value 6.6 1034 Js, and is central to all quantum theory, as we will find out. The other
* Max Planck (18581947), professor of physics in Berlin, was a central figure in thermodynamics. He discovered and named Boltzmanns constant k and the quantum of action h, often called Plancks constant. His
introduction of the quantum hypothesis gave birth to quantum theory. He also made the works of Einstein
known in the physical community, and later organized a job for him in Berlin. He received the Nobel Prize
for physics in 1918. He was an important figure in the German scientific establishment; he also was one
of the very few who had the courage to tell Adolf Hitler face to face that it was a bad idea to fire Jewish
professors. (He got an outburst of anger as answer.) Famously modest, with many tragedies in his personal
life, he was esteemed by everybody who knew him.

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Vol. IV, page 16

3
8h
.
c 3 eh/kT 1

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 145 d

The essence of black bodies is that the colour they have, i.e., the light they radiate, is
independent of the surface. Black bodies are thus ideal in this sense. Real bodies, which
do show surface effects, can be classified by their emissivity. The emissivity gives the degree to which a body approaches a black body. Mirrors have emissivities of around 0.02,
whereas black soot can have values as high as 0.95. Practically all bodies at everyday temperature are not black bodies: their colour is not determined by emission, but mostly by
the absorption and reflection of light at their surface.
Black bodies, as the section on quantum theory will show, have smooth light emission
spectra. An example for a spectrum of a black body, and for a spectrum of a real body
in this case, the Sun is shown in Figure 86.
Black bodies are also used to define the colour white. What we commonly call pure
white is the colour emitted by the Sun. The sun is not a good black body, as Figure 86
shows (its effective temperature is 5780 K). Because of these problems, pure white is now
defined as the colour of a black body of 6500 K, e.g. by the Commission Internationale
dEclairage. Hotter black bodies are bluish, colder ones are yellow, orange, red, brown or
black. The stars in the sky are classified in this way.
Black bodies are thus bodies that glow perfectly. Most real bodies are only rough approximations of black bodies, even at temperatures at which they shine yellow light. For
example, the tungsten in incandescent light bulbs, at around 2000 K, has an emissivity of
around 0.4 for most wavelengths, so that its spectrum is a corresponding fraction of that
of black body. (However, the glass of the light bulb then absorbs much of the ultraviolet
and infrared components, so that the final spectrum is not at all that of a black body.)
Black body radiation has two important properties: first, the emitted light power increases with the fourth power of the temperature. With this relation alone you can check
the temperature of the Sun, mentioned above, simply by comparing the size of the Sun
with the width of your thumb when your arm is stretched out in front of you. Are you
able to do this? (Hint: use the excellent approximation that the Earths average temperature of about 14.0C is due to the Suns irradiation.)
The precise expression for the emitted energy density u per frequency can be deduced from the radiation law for black bodies discovered by Max Planck*

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Vol. I, page 229

4 images and the eye optics

light sources

Challenge 146 e

137

constant Planck introduced, the Boltzmann constant k, appears as a prefactor of temperature all over thermodynamics, as it acts as a conversion unit from temperature to
energy.
The radiation law gives for the total emitted energy density the expression
u(T) = T 4

Challenge 147 ny

Challenge 148 ny

max = T 2.82 k/h = T 5.9 1010 Hz/K .(78)

Either of these expressions is called Wiens colour displacement rule after its discoverer.*
The colour change with temperature is used in optical thermometers; this is also the way
the temperatures of stars are measured. For 37C, human body temperature, it gives a
peak wavelength of 9.3 m or 115 THz, which is therefore the colour of the bulk of the
radiation emitted by every human being. (The peak wavelength does not correspond to
the peak frequency. Why?) On the other hand, following the telecommunication laws of
many countries, any radiation emitter needs a licence to operate; it follows that strictly
in Germany only dead people are legal, and only if their bodies are at absolute zero temperature.
We saw that a black body or a star can be blue, white, yellow, orange, red or brown.
A black body is never green. Can you explain why?
Above, we predicted that any material made of charges emits radiation. Are you able
to find a simple argument showing whether heat radiation is or is not this classically
predicted radiation?
But let us come back to the question in the section title. The existence of thermal radiation implies that any hot body will cool, even if it is left in the most insulating medium
there is, namely in vacuum. More precisely, if the vacuum is surrounded by a wall, the
temperature of a body in the vacuum will gradually approach that of the wall.
Interestingly, when the temperature of the wall and of the body inside have become
the same, something strange happens. The effect is difficult to check at home, but impressive photographs exist in the literature.
One arrangement in which walls and the objects inside them are at the same temperature is an oven. It turns out that it is impossible to see objects in an oven using the light
coming from thermal radiation. For example, if an oven and all its contents are red hot,
taking a picture of the inside of the oven (without a flash!) does not reveal anything; no
* Wilhelm Wien (b. 1864 Gaffken, d. 1928 Munich), East-Prussian physicist; he received the Nobel Prize for
physics in 1911 for the discovery of this relation.
Note that the value appearing in Wiens rule can be uniquely calculated from equation (76), but cannot
be expressed as a formula. Indeed, Wiens constant contains the solution of the equation x = 5(1 ex ).

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Ref. 105

but

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 151 ny

2.90 mm K
1 hc
=
T 4.956 k
T

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 150 ny

(77)

from which equation (85) is deduced using I = uc/4. (Why?)


The second property of black body radiation is the value of the peak wavelength, i.e.,
the wavelength emitted with the highest intensity. This wavelength determines the colour
of a black body; it is deduced from equation (76) to be
max =

Challenge 149 s

85 k 4
15c 3 h3

138

4 images and the eye optics

Figure to be inserted

Challenge 152 s

Limits to the concentration of light


Light sources should be as bright as possible. Are there any limits? Interestingly, for black
body radiation there is an important and instructive limitation.
If we build a large lens or a curved mirror, we can collect the light of the Sun and focus
it on a very small spot. Everybody has used a converging lens as a child to burn black
spots on newspapers or ants in this way. In Odeillo, in Spain, wealthier researchers
have built a curved mirror as large as a house, in order to study solar energy use and
material behaviour at high temperature. Essentially, the mirror provides a cheap way to

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contrast nor brightness changes exist that allow one to distinguish the objects from the
walls or their surroundings. Can you explain the finding?
In short, we are able to see each other only because the light sources we use are at
a different temperature from us. We can see each other only because we do not live in
thermal equilibrium with our environment.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 88 The last mirror of the solar furnace at


Odeillo, in the French Pyrenees ( Gerhard
Weinrebe).

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 87 Bodies inside an oven at room temperature differ in colour, in contrast to bodies at high
temperature (photo Wolfgang Rueckner).

light sources

139

Challenge 153 ny

Page 305

Light sources differ in brightness. Measuring what we call dark and bright is somewhat
involved, because light can be diffuse or directed. To achieve proper measurements, the
SI, the international system of units, defines a specific base unit, the candela:
The candela is the luminous intensity, in a given direction, of a source that emits
monochromatic radiation of frequency 540 1012 hertz and has a radiant intensity in that

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Measuring light intensity

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 106

fire an oven in its focus. (And focus is the Latin word for hearth.)
Kids find out quite rapidly that large lenses allow them to burn things more easily than
small ones. It is obvious that the Odeillo site is the record holder in this game. However,
building a larger mirror does not make much sense. Whatever its size may be, such a setup cannot reach a higher temperature than that of the original light source. The surface
temperature of the Sun is about 5780 K; indeed, the highest temperature reached so far
is about 4000 K. Are you able to show that this limitation is equivalent to the second
principle of thermodynamics, as Hemholtz, Clausis and Airy showed?
In short, nature provides a limit to the concentration of light energy. More precisely,
we can say: thermodynamics limits heating with thermal light sources.
The thermodynamic limits do not prevent people to use light concentration to gather
solar energy. Experimental power plants such as the one shown in Figure 89 are one
promising way to supply energy to households when fossil fuel prices rise too much.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 89 The solar power plant at Sanlucar la Mayor, near Seville, in Spain ( Wikimedia).

140

4 images and the eye optics


TA B L E 16 Some measured illuminance values.

Illumi nance

Brightness of the human body


Faint star
Sirius
phot (old illuminance unit)
Jupiter
Dark, moonless night
Full moon
Street at night, low traffic, poor lighting
Street at night, high traffic
For reading
Cinema screen
Workplace
Cloudy day
Brightest lamps, used for surgery
Sunny day
Film in cinema projector
Painful to the eye

1 plx
0.1 nlx
10 lx
10 lx
20 lx
1 mlx
0.01 to 0.24 lx
0.1 to 3 lx
10 to 30 lx
50 to 100 lx
100 lx
0.2 to 5 klx
1 klx
120 klx
120 klx
5 Mlx
100 Mlx

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Challenge 154 e

The candela is thus a unit for light power per (solid) angle, usually called luminous intensity, except that it is corrected for the eyes sensitivity: the candela measures only visible
power per angle. The definition of the candela simply says that 683 cd = 683 lm/sr corresponds to 1 W/sr. For example, a glow worm produces 0.01 cd, a candle indeed around
1 cd, a car light around 100 cd, and a lighthouse around 2 Mcd. Another way to look at
the candela is the following: watching a source with 1 cd from a distance of 1 m is a just
bit brighter than the full moon.
Total light power, irrespective of its direction, is measured in lumen. Therefore,
683 lm = 683 cd sr corresponds to 1 W. In other words, both the lumen and the watt
measure power, or energy flux, but the lumen measures only the visible part of the power
or energy flux. This difference is expressed by adding luminous or radiant: thus, the lumen measures luminous flux, whereas the Watt measures radiant flux.
The factor 683 is historical. An ordinary candle emits a luminous intensity of about
a candela. To put this into perspective: at night, a candle can be seen up to a distance
of 10 or 20 kilometres. A 100 W incandescent light bulb produces 1700 lm, and the
brightest commercial light emitting diodes about 20 lm, though laboratory devices exceed 1000 lm. Cinema projectors produce around 2 Mlm, and the brightest flashes, like
lightning, 100 Mlm.
The irradiance of sunlight is about 1300 W/m2 on a sunny day; on the other hand, the
illuminance is only 120 klm/m2 = 120 klx or 170 W/m2 . A cloud-covered summer day

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

direction of (1/683) watt per steradian.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

O b s e r va t i o n

light sources

Ref. 107

Challenge 155 e

or a clear winter day produces about 10 klx. These numbers show that most of the energy
from the Sun that reaches the Earth is outside the visible spectrum.
Illuminance is essentially what we call brightness in everyday life. On a glacier, near
the sea shore, on the top of a mountain, or in particular weather condition the brightness can reach 150 klx. Museums are often kept dark because water-based paintings are
degraded by light above 100 lx, and oil paintings by light above 200 lx. The eyes lose their
ability to distinguish colours somewhere between 0.1 lx and 0.01 lx; the eye stops to work
below 1 nlx. Technical devices to produce images in the dark, such as night goggles, start
to work at 1 lx. By the way, the human body itself shines with about 1 plx, a value too
small to be detected with the eye, but easily measured with specialized apparatus. The
origin of this emission is still a topic of research.
The highest achieved light intensities, produced with high-power lasers, are in excess
of 1018 W/m2 , more than 15 orders of magnitude higher than the intensity of sunlight.
(How much is that in lux?) Such intensities are produced by tight focusing of pulsed
laser beams. The electric field in such light pulses is of the same order as the field inside
atoms; such a laser beam therefore ionizes all matter it encounters, including the air.
The luminous density is a quantity often used by light technicians. Its unit is 1 cd/m2 ,
unofficially called 1 Nit and abbreviated 1 nt. Human eyes see using rods only from
0.1 cd/m2 to 1 mcd/m2 ; they see with cones only above 5 cd/m2 . Eyes see best between
100 and 50 000 cd/m2 , and they get completely overloaded above 10 Mcd/m2 : a total
range of 15 orders of magnitude. Very few technical detectors achieve this range.
Other light and radiation sources

Vol. II, page 199

High-intensity electromagnetic radiation is dangerous. In many countries, there is more


money to study assault weapons than to increase the education and wealth of their citizen.
Several types of assault weapons using electromagnetic radiation are being researched.

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Radiation as weapon

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Vol. V, page 101

Apart from black bodies, many other types of light sources exist, from glowing fish to
high-power lasers. They range in size from an atom to a building, in cost from a fraction
of an Euro to hundreds of millions of Euros, and in lifetime from a fraction of a second to
hundreds of years. Most sources of visible, infrared and ultraviolet light, including most
laser types, are covered later on in our adventure. In the domain of imaging, lasers are
used in specialized microscopy techniques, in tomography and in holography.
Sources of radio waves are common; mobile phones, radio transmitters, tv transmitters and walkie-talkies are all sources of radio waves. They are rarely used for imaging,
with one important exception: Since many stars are radio emitters, one can image the sky
at radio wavelengths. In fact, radio astronomy is an important part of modern astronomy
and has led to many discoveries. Radio astronomy has also been an important tool for
the precision testing and confirmation of general relativity.
On the other end of the electromagnetic spectrum, light sources that emit X-rays and
gamma rays are common. They are routinely used in medicine and materials science.
All sources of electromagnetic radiation are potentially dangerous to humans, so that
special care has to be taken when using them. This has also led to various unfortunate
developments.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 108

141

142

4 images and the eye optics

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014


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Two are particularly advanced.


The first such weapon is a truck with a movable parabolic antenna on its roof, about
1 m in size, that emits a high power a few kW microwave beam at 95 GHz. The beam,
like all microwave beams, is invisible; depending on power and beam shape, it is painful
or lethal, up to a distance of 100 m and more. This terrible device, officially called active denial system, with which the operator can make many victims even by mistake,
was ready in 2006. Some politicians want to give it to the police. (Who expects that a
parabolic antenna is dangerous?) Efforts to ban it across the world are slowly gathering
momentum.
The second weapon under development is the so-called pulsed impulse kill laser. The
idea is to take a laser that emits radiation that is not absorbed by air, steam or similar
obstacles. An example is a pulsed deuterium fluoride laser that emits at 3.5 m. This laser
burns every material it hits; in addition, the evaporation of the plasma produced by the
burn produces a strong hit, so that people hit by such a laser are hurt and hit at the same
time. Fortunately, it is still difficult to make such a device rugged enough for practical
mobile use. Nevertheless, experts expect battle lasers to appear soon.
In short, it is probable that radiation weapons will appear in the coming years. What
the men working on such developments tell their children when they come home in the

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 90 A modern
picosecond pulse laser and
an industrial X-ray source,
both about 700 mm in size
( Time-Bandwidth, SPECS).

images transporting light

143

F I G U R E 91 The spooksh
Dolichopteryx longipes has orange
mirrors that help him make sharp
images also from the dim light
coming upwards from
bioluminescent lifeforms below it
( Tamara Frank).

images transp orting light


All images are formed by transporting light in a useful manner along known paths. The
simplest path is the straight line.

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Challenge 156 s

Since light moves in a straight line, a flat mirror produces an image of the same size than
the original. Curved mirrors can be used to increase, reduce and distort images. Expensive room mirrors are often slightly curved, in order to make people appear thinner.
Most human-made mirrors are made of metal; but living systems cannot produce
pure metals. On the other hand, in living systems, mirrors abound: they are found as
the tapetum in the eyes, on fish scales, on bugs, etc. How does nature produce mirrors,
despite lacking the ability to use pure metals? It turns out that sandwiches of different
thin transparent materials one of which is typically crystalline guanine can produce
mirrors that are almost as good as metal mirrors. Such mirrors are based on interference
effects and are called dielectric mirrors.
Image-forming mirrors are used in large telescopes, in systems for X-rays, in devices
by medical doctors, and, if one wants to count this, for the shaping of light beams in cars
or in pocket lamps. Interestingly, also some living beings use mirrors for imaging. The
most famous example is the spookfish shown in Figure 91. It is able to look up and down
at the same time, and does so using mirrors attached to his eyes.
By the way, why are mirrors used in telescopes, but not in microscopes?
The most involved mirror systems to date are used in the extreme ultraviolet mask
lithography systems that will be used in the future production of integrated circuits.
These systems use a wavelength of 13.5 nm, at which lenses are not available. Collimating
an expanding beam thus requires many concentric mirrors, as shown in Figure 92. These

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Making images with mirrors

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

evening is not clear, though.

144

4 images and the eye optics

Does light always travel in a straight line? Refraction

Page 16
Ref. 109

Usually light moves in straight lines. A laser in a misty night shows this most clearly, as
illustrated in Figure 93. But any laser pointer in the mist is equally fascinating. Indeed, we
use light to define straightness, as we explained in the exploration of relativity. However,
there are a number of situations in which light does not travel in a straight line, and every
expert on motion should know them.

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optical systems are the very best that modern technology can provide; for example, the
mirrors have a surface roughness below 0.4 nm. Similar optical mirror systems are also
used in x-ray satellite telescopes.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 93 Light usually travels in a straight


line. In the gure, a sodium frequency laser
beam is used as laser guide star to provide a
signal for adaptive optics in large telescopes.
The laser illuminates a layer of sodium found
in the atmosphere at around 90 km of
altitude, thus providing an articial star. The
articial star is used to improve the image
quality of the telescope through adaptive
optics. In the photograph, the images of the
real stars are blurred because of the long
exposure time of 3 min (photo by Paul Hirst).

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 92 A Wolter-type grazing incidence


collector for 13.5 nm radiaton built with the
help of concentric mirrors ( Media Lario
Technologies)

images transporting light

145

air

light
beam
sugar and water

F I G U R E 94 Diluted sugar syrup bends light ( Jennifer Nierer).

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 157 s

In diluted sugar syrup, light beams curve, as shown in Figure 94. The reason is that in
such an experiment, the sugar concentration changes with depth. Are you able to explain
the syrup effect?
More detailed observation show that a light beam is bent at every material change it
encounters on its path. This effect, called refraction, is quite common. Refraction changes
the appearance of the shape of our feet when we are in the bath tub; refraction also makes
aquaria seem less deep than they actually are. Refraction is a consequence of the change
of the phase velocity of light from material to material, as shown by Figure 96.
Refraction can also be seen to follow from the minimization principle for the motion
of light: light always takes the path that requires the shortest travel time. For example,
light moves more slowly in water than in air; the speed ratio between air and water is
called the refractive index of water. The refractive index, usually abbreviated n, is materialdependent. The value for water is about 1.3. This speed ratio, together with the minimum-

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Vol. I, page 231

F I G U R E 95 Realistic computer graphics showing the refraction in water and in diluted sugar syrup
(graphics Robin Wood). Can you tell which one is which?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 158 e

146

4 images and the eye optics

F I G U R E 96 A visualisation of
refraction (QuickTime lm ISVR,
University of Southhampton).
Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

air

water

Challenge 159 s

Page 122

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time principle, leads to the law of refraction, a simple relation between the sines of the
two angles. Can you deduce it? In fact, the exact definition of the refractive index is with
respect to vacuum, not to air. But the difference is negligible, because gases are mainly
made of vacuum and their index of refraction is close to one.
In many fluids and solids, light signals move more slowly than in vacuum; also the
(different) phase and group velocities of light inside materials are regularly lower than c,
the light speed in vacuum. We discussed the difference between these speeds above. For
such normal materials, the refractive index n, the ratio of c to the phase velocity inside
the material, is larger than 1. The refractive index is an important material property for
the description of optical effects. For example, the value for visible light in water is about
1.3, for glasses it is around 1.5, and for diamond 2.4. The high value is one reason for the
sparkle of diamonds cut with the 57-face brilliant cut.
The refractive index also depends on wavelength; most materials show dispersion.
Prisms make use of this dependence to split white or other light into its constituent
colours. Also diamond, and in particular the brilliant cut, works as a prism, and this
is the second reason for their sparkle.
In contrast to normal materials, various materials have refractive indices that are
lower than 1, and thus phase velocities larger than c. For example, gold has a refractive

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 97 Refraction of light is due to travel-time optimization.

images transporting light

147

The (inverted) superior mirage, neglecting Earths curvature:

hot air
cold air

The (inverted) inferior mirage, neglecting Earths curvature:

cold air
hot air

Ref. 110

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 111

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index of around 0.2 for visible light, and thus a phase velocity of around 5c for such waves.
In fact, almost all materials have refractive indices below 1 for some wave frequencies,
including table salt.
In short, refraction of light, the change of the direction of light motion, is due to different phase velocities of light in different materials. Material changes bend light paths.
Refraction is so common because it is extremely rare to have different materials with the
same refractive index.
Gases have refractive indices close to the vacuum value 1. Nevertheless, also gases lead
to refraction. In particular, the refractive index of gases depends on temperature. Refraction in gases leads to the most famous effect of light curvature: the mirage. Figure 98
shows photographs of a superior mirage, which relies on an inversion layer in the atmosphere above the object and the observer, and a inferior mirage, due to a hot layer of
air just above the ground. Inferior mirages are also regularly seen on hot highways. All
mirage types are due to refraction; their detailed appearance depends on the given temperature profile in the air, and the relative heights of the observer, the inversion layer and
the observed object.
Above all, refraction is used in the design of lenses. With glass one can produce precisely curved surfaces that allow us to focus light. All focusing devices, such as lenses, can
be used to produce images. The two main types of lenses, with their focal points and the
images they produce, are shown in Figure 99; they are called converging lenses and divergent lenses. When an object is more distant from a single converging lens than its focus,
the lens produces a real image, i.e., an image that can be projected onto a screen. In all
other cases single converging or diverging lenses produce so-called virtual images: such
images can be seen with the eye but not be projected onto a screen. For example, when
an object is put between a converging lens and its focus, the lens works as a magnifying
glass. Figure 99 also allows one to deduce the thin lens formula that connects the lengths

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 98 The basis of mirages is an effective reection due to refraction in a hot air layer; it can lead
to spectacular effects, such as the inverted superior mirage (top left and right) and the inferior image
(bottom left and right) (photographs Thomas Hogan and Andy Barson).

148

4 images and the eye optics

focus
real
image
with
optional
screen

object and
light departing
from it

do

di

focus

virtual
image
di

do

Ref. 112

Challenge 161 e

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Ref. 113

do , di and f . What is it?


Even though glasses and lenses have been known since antiquity, the Middle Ages had
to pass by before two lenses were combined to make more elaborate optical instruments.
The various effects that can be observed with one or two lenses are shown in Figure 100.
The telescope was invented after a partial success in Italy by Giambattista della Porta
just before 1608 in the Netherlands. The most well-known of at least three simultaneous
inventors was the GermanDutch lens grinder Johannes Lipperhey (c. 15701619) who
made a fortune by selling his telescopes to the Dutch military. When Galileo heard about
the discovery, he quickly took it over and improved it. Already in 1609, Galileo performed
the first astronomical observations; they made him world-famous. The Dutch telescope
design has a short tube yielding a bright and upright image, and its magnification is the
ratio of the focal distances of the two lenses. It is still used today in opera glasses. Over the
years, many other ways of building telescopes have been developed; in particular, many
modern high-performance telescopes use mirrors. Since mirrors are cheaper and easier
to fabricate for high-precision imaging, most large telescopes have a mirror instead of
the first lens.
By the way, telescopes also exist in nature. Most spiders have several types of eyes, and
some up to 6 different pairs. For example, the jumping spider genus Portia (Salticidae)
has two especially large eyes, made to see distant objects, which have two lenses behind
each other; the second lens and the retina behind it can be moved with muscles, so that
such spiders can effectively point their telescope in different directions without moving
their head. In order to process the input from all their eyes, jumping spiders need a large

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 160 s

F I G U R E 99 A real image produced by


a converging lens (if used in the way
shown) and the virtual image
produced by a diverging lens.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

object and
light departing
from it

images transporting light

149

No
(glass)
lens
d (cm) :

15

35

35

45

85

One
lens
Two equal
converging
lenses
Two different
converging lenses
(astronomical telescope)
Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

A converging and
a diverging lens
(the Dutch telescope)
final,
enlarged
virtual
image

The Dutch telescope

intermediate,
real image
(if ocular
missing)
to the
eye

object
ocular:
diverging
lens

objective:
converging
lens

F I G U R E 100 Lens refraction is the basis of the telescope: above, the experiments with lenses that lead

Challenge 162 s

brain. In fact, about 50% of the body mass of jumping spiders is brain mass.
Another way to combine two lenses leads to the microscope. Can you explain to a
non-physicist how a microscope works? Werner Heisenberg almost failed his Ph.D. exam
because he could not. The problem is not difficult, though. Indeed, the inventor of the
microscope was an autodidact of the seventeenth century: the Dutch technician Antoni
van Leeuwenhoek (16321723) made a living by selling over five hundred of his microscopes to his contemporaries. (This is a somewhat nasty remark: Van Leeuwenhoek only
used one lens, not two, as in the modern microscope.)

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to the development of the telescope: the object to watch compared with the images produced by a
single converging lens, by two equal converging lenses, by two different converging lenses in the
astronomical telescope, and by a diverging and a converging lens in the Dutch telescope, at various
distances from the eye; below, the explanation of the Dutch telescope (photographs Eric Kirchner).

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

common
focus
of both
lenses

150

4 images and the eye optics

F I G U R E 101

Eye lens dispersion


F I G U R E 102 Watching this graphic at higher

Challenge 163 ny

Page 116

Challenge 164 s

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Ref. 114

No ray tracing diagram, be it that of a simple lens, of a telescope or of a microscope, is


really complete if the eye, with its lens and retina, is missing. Can you add it and convince
yourself that these devices really work?
Refraction is usually colour-dependent. For that reason (and also in order to compensate the other lens imaging errors called aberrations) microscopes or photographic
cameras have several lenses, made of different types of glass. They compensate the colour
effects, which otherwise yield coloured image borders. The colour dependence of refraction in water droplets is also the basis of the rainbow, as shown below, and refraction in
ice crystals in the atmosphere is at the basis of the halos, sun pillars and the many other
light patterns often seen around the Sun or the Moon.
Also the human eye has colour-dependent refraction. (It is well known that for the
working of the eye, the curvature of the cornea is more important than the refractive
power of the lens, because the lens is embedded in a medium with nearly the same index
of refraction, thus limiting the effects of refraction.) The colour-dependent refraction is
not corrected in the eye, but in the brain. Indeed, the dispersion of the eye lens can be
noticed if this correction is made impossible, for example when red or blue letters are
printed on a black background, as shown in Figure 102. One gets the impression that the
red letters float in front of the blue letters. Can you show how dispersion leads to the
floating effect?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

magnication shows the dispersion of the


human eye: the letters oat at different depths.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

The glory
produced by
the droplets
in a cloud.

images transporting light

151

F I G U R E 103 Optical bres: their working principle and their application in the vertebrate eye, in marine

animals, in insect eyes, in illumination, in tapers for image size change, and in telecommunications
( Schott).

Ref. 116

Ref. 117

In 1968 the Soviet physicist Victor Veselago made a strange prediction: the index of refraction could have negative values without invalidating any known law of physics. A
negative index means that a beam is refracted to the same side of the vertical, as shown
in Figure 104. As a result, concave lenses made of such materials focus and convex lenses
disperse parallel beams, in contrast to usual lens materials.
In 1996, John Pendry and his group proposed ways of realizing such materials. In
2000, a first experimental confirmation for microwave refraction was published, but it
met with strong disbelief. In 2002 the debate was in full swing. It was argued that negative refraction indices imply speeds greater than that of light and are only possible for

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200 years too late negative refraction indices

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 115

Another way to bend light, also based on refraction, is used by many animals and technical devices: optical fibres. Optical fibres are based on total internal reflection; an overview
of their uses is given in Figure 103.
In nature, optical fibres appear in at least three systems. In insect eyes, such as the eyes
of the house fly or the eye of a honey bee, the light for each image pixel is transported
along a structure that works as a conical optical fibre. In certain sea animals, such as the
glass sponge Euplectella aspergillum and a number of other sponges, actual silica fibres
are used to provide structural stability and to transport light signals to photodetectors.
Finally, all vertebrate eyes, including the human eye, contain a large number of optical
fibres above the retina, to avoid the image problems that might be caused by the blood
vessels, which lie above the retina in all vertebrate eyes. By the way, the frequently heard
claim that the white hair of polar bears works as optical fibres for UV light is false.
In technical applications, optical fibres are essential for the working of the telephone
network and the internet, for signal distribution inside aeroplanes and cars, for the transport of laser light for medical uses, for high-power lasers and in many other settings.
Hollow glass fibres are successfully used for the imaging of X-rays.

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Bending light with tubes fibre optics

152

4 images and the eye optics

air
n1

water
n>1

air
n1
left-handed
material
n<0
F I G U R E 104 Positive

and negative indices


of refraction n.

Ref. 119

Ref. 119

Ref. 121

The simplest realization of left-handed systems are metamaterials. Metamaterials are engineered metal-insulator structures that are left-handed for a certain wavelength range,
usually in the radio or microwave domain.
Currently, there are two basic approaches to realize metamaterials. The first is to build
a metamaterial from a large array of resonant inductor-capacitor (LC-) circuits. The sec-

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Metamaterials

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 120

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 118

either phase velocity or group velocity, but not for the energy or true signal velocity. The
conceptual problems would arise only because in some physical systems the refraction
angle for phase motion and for energy motion differ.
In the meantime, the debate is over. Negative indices of refraction have indeed been
frequently observed; the corresponding systems are being extensively explored all over
the world. Systems with negative index of refraction do exist. The materials showing this
property are called left-handed. The reason is that the vectors of the electric field, the
magnetic field and the wave vector form a left-handed triplet, in contrast to vacuum and
most usual materials, where the triplet is right-handed. Such materials consistently have
negative magnetic permeability and negative dielectric coefficient (permittivity).
Apart from the unusual refraction properties, left-handed materials have negative
phase velocities, i.e., a phase velocity opposed to the energy velocity; they also show reversed Doppler effect and yield obtuse angles in the Vaviloverenkov effect (emitting
Vaviloverenkov radiation in the backward instead of in the forward direction).
But, most intriguing, negative refraction materials are predicted to allow constructing
lenses that are completely flat. In addition, in the year 2000, John Pendry gained the
attention of the whole physics community world-wide by predicting that lenses made
with such materials, in particular for n = 1, would be perfect, thus beating the usual
diffraction limit. This would happen because such a lens also images the evanescent parts
of the waves i.e., the exponentially decaying ones by amplifying them accordingly.
First experiments seem to confirm the prediction. Exploration of the topic is still in full
swing.
It should be mentioned that one type of negative refraction systems have been known
since a long time: diffraction gratings. The only difference is that negative index materials
try to work as gratings in all spatial directions.

images transporting light

153

F I G U R E 105 An example of an isotropic metamaterial


(M. Zedler et al., 2007 IEEE).

Ref. 122

Ref. 123

Challenge 165 s

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Ref. 124

Light goes around corners. This effect was called diffraction by Francesco Grimaldi, in his
text Physico-mathesis de lumine, published in 1665. Grimaldi studied shadows very carefully. He found out what everybody now learns in secondary school: light goes around
corners in the same way that sound does, and light diffraction is due to the wave nature
of light. (Newton got interested in optics after he read Grimaldi; Newton then wrongly
dismissed his conclusions.)
Because of diffraction, it is impossible to produce strictly parallel light beams. For example, every laser beam diverges by a certain minimum amount, called the diffraction
limit. Maybe you know that the worlds most expensive Cats-eyes are on the Moon, where
they have been deposited by the Lunokhod and the Apollo missions. Can you determine
how wide a laser beam with minimum divergence has become when it arrives at the
Moon and returns back to Earth, assuming that it was 1 m wide when it left Earth? How
wide would it be when it came back if it had been 1 mm wide at the start? In short, diffraction and the impossibility of non-diverging beams confirms that light is a wave.
Diffraction implies that there are no perfectly sharp images: there exists a limit on
resolution. This is true for every optical instrument, including the eye. The resolution
of the eye is between one and two minutes of arc, i.e., between 0.3 and 0.6 mrad. The

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Light around corners diffraction

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

ond approach is to build them from resonant transmission lines. The latter approach has
lower losses and a wider spectral range. An example is shown in Figure 105.
Most metamaterials are conceived for waves in the microwave range. Crystals that act
as left-handed materials in the optical range, though for certain frequencies only, and
only in one dimension, have been identified recently. Research on the topic is presently
in full swing. Industrial applications of left handed (meta-)materials are expected for antenna design; for example, the antenna dipole could be located just above a metamaterial,
allowing flat directional antennas. The most unrealistic people are those who claim that
invisibility cloaks can be realized with metamaterials. While this is a good marketing slogan to attract funding, it is not realistic, due to inevitable signal losses in the materials,
dispersion, finite cell size etc. So far, all aeroplanes that were claimed to be invisible for
certain (radar) frequencies have turned out to be visible to radar. But sources of military
funding are known to have only a distant relation to reality.

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4 images and the eye optics

Naive prediction

Observation
lamp
circular plate
screen with
shadow

Poissons spot

F I G U R E 106 Shadows show that light is a wave: the naive expectation (left), neglecting the wave idea,

and the actual observation (middle and right) of the shadow of a circular object (photo Christopher
Jones).

Challenge 167 s

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* Augustin Jean Fresnel (17881827), engineer and part time physicist (the s in his name is silent). In 1818,
he published his great paper on wave theory for which he got the prize of the French Academy of Sciences
in 1819. To improve his finances, he worked in the commission responsible for lighthouses, for which he
developed the well-known Fresnel lens. He died prematurely, partly of exhaustion due to overwork.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 125
Challenge 168 ny

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Challenge 166 d

limit is partly due to the finite size of the pupil. (That is why squinting helps to see more
sharply.) In practice, the resolution of the eye is often limited by chromatic aberrations
and shape imperfections of the cornea and lens. (Can you check the numbers and their
interpretation by calculation? Is it true that the number of rods in the eye is tuned exactly
to its resolution?) Therefore, for example, there is a maximum distance at which humans
can distinguish the two headlights of a car. Can you estimate it?
Resolution limits also make it impossible to see the Great Wall in northern China from
the Moon, contrary to what is often claimed. In the few parts that are not yet in ruins,
the wall is about 6 metres wide, and even if it casts a wide shadow during the morning
or the evening, the angle it subtends is way below a second of arc, so that it is completely
invisible to the human eye. In fact, three different cosmonauts who travelled to the Moon
performed careful searches and confirmed that the claim is absurd. The story is one of the
most tenacious urban legends. (Is it possible to see the Wall from the space shuttle?) The
largest human-made objects are the polders of reclaimed land in the Netherlands; they
are visible from outer space. So are most large cities as well as the highways in Belgium
at night; their bright illumination makes them stand out clearly from the dark side of the
Earth.
Diffraction has the consequence that behind a small disc illuminated along its axis, the
centre of the shadow shows, against all expectations, a bright spot, as shown in Figure 106.
This hole in the shadow was predicted in 1819 by Denis Poisson (17811840) in order
to show to what absurd consequences the wave theory of light would lead. He had just
read the mathematical description of diffraction developed by Augustin Fresnel* on the
basis of the wave description of light. But shortly afterwards, Franois Arago (17861853)
actually observed Poissons spot, converting Poisson, making Fresnel famous and starting
the general acceptance of the wave properties of light.
Diffraction can also be used, in certain special applications, to produce images. A few
examples of the use of diffraction in optics are shown in Figure 107. Of these, acoustooptic modulators are used in many laser systems, for example in laser shows. Also holo-

images transporting light

155

F I G U R E 107 Examples of diffractive optics: a diffractive aspherical lens, the result shining a red laser

through of a plastic sheet with a diffractive cross generator, and an acousto-optic modulator used to
modulate laser beams that are transmitted through the built-in crystal ( Jenoptik, Wikimedia, Jeff
Sherman).

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

microscopy using stimulated emission


depletion (right) compared to
conventional confocal microscopy (left)
( MPI fr biophysikalische
Chemie/Stefan Hell).

grams, to be discussed in detail below, can be considered a special kind of diffractive


images.
In summary, diffraction is sometimes used to form or to influence images; but above
all, in every image, diffraction determines the resolution, i.e., the image quality.
Beating the diffraction limit
In all imaging methods, the race is for images with the highest resolution possible. In
particular, the techniques of producing images with resolutions less than the wavelength
of light have made great progress in recent years.
Nowadays, extraordinary images can be produced with modified commercial light

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Page 158

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 108 Sub-wavelength optical

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4 images and the eye optics

microscopes. The conventional diffraction limit for microscopes is


d

,
2n sin

(79)

Vol. I, page 179

Optical technology can be defined as the science of bending light. Reflection, refraction
and diffraction are the most important methods to achieve this. But it makes sense to
explore the question more generally: what other ways can be used to bend light beams?
A further way to bend light is gravity, as discussed already in the chapters on universal

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Other ways to bend light

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 126

so that a properly chosen saturation intensity allows one to reduce the diffraction limit
to arbitrary low values. So far, light microscopy with a resolution of 16 nm has been
performed. An example image is shown in Figure 108. This and similar techniques are
becoming commonplace in materials science, medicine and biology.
Research in new microscopy techniques is still ongoing, also in the numerous attempts to transfer resolution in time to resolution in space. Another important domain
of research is the development of microscopes that can be included in endoscopes, so
that physicians can explore the human body without the need of large operations. Microscopy is still a field in full swing.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

where is the wavelength, n the index of refraction and is the angle of observation.
There are three main ways to circumvent this limit. The first is to work in the near field,
where the diffraction limit is not valid, the second way is to observe and measure the
diffraction effects and then to use computers to reduce the effects via image processing,
the third way is to use effects that produces light emission from the sample that is smaller
than the wavelength of light, and the fourth way is to use resolution in time to increase
resolution in time.
A well-known near-field technique is the near-field scanning optical microscope.
Light is sent through a tapered glass fibre with a small transparent hole at the end, down
to 15 nm; the tip is scanned over the sample, sp that the image is acquired point by point.
These microscopes achieve the highest resolution of all optical microscopes. However, it
is hard to get a practical amount of light through the small holw at the end of the tip.
Many computational techniques can achieve images that achieve resolutions below
the diffraction limit. The simpler types of these deconvolution microscopy techniques
are already commercially available.
One of the first techniques that beat the diffraction limit by a substantial amount using
in a conventional microscope is stimulated emission depletion microscopy. Using a clever
illumination system based on two laser beams, the technique allows spot sizes of almost
molecular size. The new technique, a special type of fluorescence microscopy developed
by Stefan Hell, uses an illuminating laser beam with a circular spot and a second laser
beam with a ring-like shape. As a result of this combination, the techniques modifies the
diffraction limit to

d
,
(80)
2n sin I/Isat

images transporting light

157

preliminary drawing
F I G U R E 109 In certain materials, light

M
F I G U R E 110 Masses bend light.

beams can spiral around each other.

Vol. II, page 166

Vol. II, page 246

Ref. 127

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Page 134

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Vol. IV, page 63

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Page 154

gravity and those on general relativity. Since the effect of gravity is weak, it is only of
importance in astronomy. Gravitational lensing is used in various projects to measure
the size, mass and distance of galaxies and galaxy groups. The usually negligible effect of
gravity between two light beams was also discussed earlier on.
In practice, there are no laboratory-scale methods to bend light beams apart from
reflection, refraction and diffraction. All known methods are specialized cases of these
three options.
An important way in which materials can be used to bend light are acousto-optic deflectors. They work like acousto-optic modulators, i.e., a sound wave travelling through
a crystal generates a diffraction grating that is used to deflect a laser beam. Such modulators thus use diffraction to bend light.
Additional electromagnetic fields usually do not influence light directly, since light has
no charge and since Maxwells equations are linear. But in some materials the effective
equations are non-linear, and the story changes. For example, in certain photorefractive
materials, two nearby light beams can even twist around each other, as was shown by
Segev and coworkers in 1997. This is illustrated in Figure 109. This effect is thus a form of
refraction.
Another common way to deflect light uses its polarization. Many materials, for example liquid crstals or electro-optic materials, bend light beams depending on their polarization. These materials can be used to steer or even to block laser beams. Liquid crystal
modulators and electro-optic modulators are thus based in refraction.
Scattered light also changes direction. It is debatable whether it is appropriate to call
this process an example of bending of light. In any case, scattering is important: without
it, we would not see almost anything around us. After all, everyday seeing is detection of
scattered light. And of course, scattering is a case of diffraction.
The next question is: what methods exist to move light beams? Even though photons
have zero mass and electrons have non-zero mass, scanning electron beams is easily
achieved with more than 1 GHz frequency, whereas scanning powerful light beams is
hard for more than 10 kHz.
Moving light beams and laser scanners in particular is important: solutions are
the basis of a sizeable industry. Moving laser beams are used for laser treatments of the
eye, for laser marking, for laser shows, for laser cutting, for barcode reading in supermarkets, for rapid prototyping, for laser sintering, for laser distance measurements, for
lidar, for the mentioned microscopy techniques, and for various industrial processes in
the production of electronic printed circuits and of display for mobile phones. Most laser
scanners are based on moving mirrors, prisms or lenses, though acousto-optic scanners
and electro-optic scanners, which achieve a few MHz scanning rate for low power beams,
are also used in special applications. Many applications are eagerly waiting for inventions

158

4 images and the eye optics

Recording:

Observation:
holographic plate
virtual
object
image

object

reference
beam
laser

developed
film
observer

reconstruction
beam
laser or point-like light source

F I G U R E 111 The recording (left) and the observation (right) of a hologram (in this case, in transmission).

Challenge 169 e

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Our sense of sight gives us the impression of depth mainly due to three effects. First, the
two eyes see different images. Second, the images formed in the eyes are position dependent. Third, for different distances, our eye needs to focus differently.
A usual paper photograph does not capture any of these three-dimensional effects: a
paper photograph corresponds to the picture taken by one eye, from one particular spot
and at one particular focus. In fact, all photographic cameras are essentially copies of a
single static eye with fixed focus.
Any system wanting to produce the perception of depth must include at least one
of the three three-dimensional effects just mentioned. In fact, the third effect, varying
focus with distance, is the weakest one, so that most systems concentrate on the other
two effects, different images for the two eyes, and an image that depends on the position
of the head. Stereo photography and stereo films extensively use the first effect by sending
two different images to the eyes, sometimes with the help of coloured glasses. Also certain
post cards and computer screens are covered by thin cylindrical lenses that allow sending
two different images to the two eyes, thus generating an impression of depth.
But obviously the most spectacular depth effect is obtained whenever position dependent images can be created. Modern virtual reality systems produce this effect using a
sensor attached to the head, and creating computergenerated images that depend on
the heads position. However, such systems are limited to computer graphics; they are

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

How does one make holograms and other three-dimensional


images?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

that allow faster laser scanning.


In summary, moving light beams requires to move matter, usually in the form of mirror or lenses. Light travels in straight line only if it travels far from matter. In everyday
life, far simply means more than a few millimetres, because electromagnetic effects are
negligible at these distances, mainly due to lights truly supersonic speed. However, as
we have seen, in some cases that involve gravitation, larger distances from matter are
necessary to ensure undisturbed motion of light.

images transporting light

159

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copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014
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F I G U R E 112 A selection of holograms: the hologram of a train, the reection hologram on a Euro bill,

and a rare colour hologram ( Anonymous, Hans-Ulrich Ptsch, Robert Norwood).

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4 images and the eye optics

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014


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not able to reproduce reality and thus they pale when compared with the impression
produced by holograms.
Holograms reproduce all data that is seen from any point of a region of space. A hologram is thus a stored set of position dependent pictures of an object. A hologram is produced by storing amplitude and phase of the light emitted or scattered by an object. To
achieve this storage, the object is illuminated by a coherent light source, such as a laser,
and the interference pattern between the illumination and the scattered light is stored,
usually in a photographic film. The procedure is shown schematically in Figure 111. In
a second step, illuminating the developed film by a coherent light source a laser or a
small lamp then allows one to see a full three-dimensional image. In particular, due to
the reproduction of the situation, the image appears to float in free space.
A few examples of holograms are shown in Figure 112. Holograms were developed in
1947 by the Hungarian physicist Dennis Gabor (19001979), who received the 1971 Nobel
Prize for physics for this work. The beauty of Gabors invention is that it was mainly
theoretical, since lasers were not yet available at the time.
Holograms can be transmission holograms, like those in seen in museums, or reflection holograms, like those found on credit cards or currency bills. Holograms can be laser
holograms and white light holograms. Most coloured holograms are rainbow holograms,
showing false colours that are unrelated to the original objects. Real colour holograms,
made and rendered with three different lasers, are rare but possible. Specific hologram
systems are used in head-up displays in cars and computer-aided assembly.
By a double illumination at two different times, one obtains a so-called interferogram,
which allows visualizing and measuring the deformation of an object. Interferograms are
used to observe and measure deformation, oscillation or temperature effects.
Is it possible to make moving holograms? Yes; however, the technical set-ups are still
extremely expensive. So far, they exist only in a few laboratories (for example, www.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 113 Interferograms of a guitar ( Wikimedia).

images transporting light

161

Southern California, at gl.ict.usc.edu/Research/3DDisplay ( USC Stevens Institute for Innovation).

Challenge 170 s

Images through scanning

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When images are produced using lenses or mirrors, all the points of an image are produced in parallel. In contrast, in scanning techniques, images are constructed serially,
point by point. Even though scanning is intrinsically slower than any parallel technique,
it has its own advantages: scanning allows imaging in three dimensions and resolutions
higher than the diffraction limit. Scanning techniques are mostly used in microscopy.
The most famous scanning technique does not use light rays, but electrons: the scanning electron microscope. As shown in Figure 116, such microscopes can produce stunning
images. However, the images produced are two-dimensional.
A typical example for a modern three-dimensional imaging technique based on light
is confocal laser scanning microscopy. The technique is based on eliminating all light signals that are outside the focus of the microscope. The technique allows taking a picture
of a more or less transparent specimen at a specified depth below its surface, up to a
maximum depth of about 500 m. Confocal microscopes are now available from various
manufacturers.
An example of a technique for high-resolution is multiphoton microscopy. In this technique, the fluorescence of a specimen is excited using two or three photons of longer

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 171 e

optics.arizona.edu/pstg/index.html) and are extremely expensive. By the way, can you


describe how you would distinguish a high quality moving hologram from a real body
without touching it?
Not all three-dimensional images are holograms. Using rotating displays, rotating mirrors or rotating screens, it is possible to produce stunning three-dimensional images. An
impressive example of such technology demonstrators is presented in Figure 114. Can
you deduce why it was not a commercial success?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 114 A three-dimensional image system based on a rotating mirror, from the University of

162

4 images and the eye optics

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copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014
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F I G U R E 115 Three scanning imaging techniques and the images they produce: confocal laser scanning

microscopy, multiphoton microscopy and optical coherence tomography ( Nikon, Carl Zeiss, XXX YYY).

images transporting light

163

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copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014
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F I G U R E 116 A modern scanning electron microscope, and an image of pollen eld size about 0.3 mm
showing the resolution and the depth of eld achievable with the technique ( Zeiss, Wikimedia).

164

Page 171

Tomography

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A spectacular type of imaging has become possible only after high-speed computers became cheap: tomography. In tomography, a radiation source rotates around the object
to be imaged; the radiation that is scattered and/or transmitted is detected, and with sophisticated computer programming, a cross section of the object is reconstructed. Threedimensional reconstructions are also possible. Tomography can be performed with any
type of radiation that can be emitted in sufficiently well-defined beams, such as gamma
rays, X-rays, light, radio waves, electron beams, neutron beams, sound and even earthquakes. X-ray tomography is a standard method in health care; visible light tomography,
which has no side effects on humans, is being developed for breast tumour detection. Additional specialized techniques are electrical resistivity tomography, magnetic induction
tomography and cryo-electron tomography.
In several types of tomography, the resolution achieved is breath-taking. An example for modern high-resolution X-ray tomography of really small objects is shown in
Figure 117. An example of X-ray tomography of a large object is shown in Figure 118.
Building a set-up that produces such images is a large project and an impressive feat.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

wavelengths. Like all fluorescence techniques, the image is produced from the fluorescent light emitted by certain chemical substances found in living organisms. In contrast
to usual fluorescence microscopy, multiphoton imaging is based on a nonlinear effect, so
that the emission region in extremely narrow and therefore high resolution is achieved.
An example of a technique that allows both three-dimensional imaging and highresolution is optical coherence tomography. The technique is free of danger for the specimen, allows a depth of a few millimetres in animal or human tissue, and allows resolutions down to 500 nm. Modern systems allow imaging of 10 GVoxel/s and more, so that
films of biological processes can be produced in vivo, such as the blood flow in a human
finger. Using the Doppler effect, the direction of the blodd flow can also be determined.
OCT is commonly used in ophthalmology; OCT is also being researched for applications
in dermatology. Endoscopic OCT will become an important tool in oncology and cardiology. OCT is also being used in material research to image turbid media.
For the highest possible optical resolution, near-field scanning optical microscopy is
unsurpassed. Usually, a tiny optical probe is scanned across the surface. By working in
the near field, the diffraction limit is circumvented, and reolution in the nanometer range
becomes possible.
Another group of scanning microscopes also use electromagnetism to produce highest resolution images, though they do not use light. The most famous examples are the
scanning tunnelling microscope or STM, the atomic force microscope or AFM and the magnetic force microscope or MFM. These instruments, though small and easy to build, have
revolutionized material science in the last decades, because they allow to achieve atomic
resolution in air on a normal laboratory table.
In summary, technological advances allow sophisticated imaging systems based on
scanning, in particular in the field of microscopy. Since the field is still in flux, scanning
techniques are expected to yield even more impressive results in the coming years. This
progress in scanning techniques reminds one of the past progress of a further type of
imaging principle that reconstructs images in an even more involved way: tomography.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Vol. I, page 300

4 images and the eye optics

images transporting light

X-ray
tube

165

sample

computer
controlled
positioning

X-ray
detector

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics


copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Also magnetic resonance imaging, widely used in health care to image the interior of the
human body, is a type of tomography, based on radio waves; it will be presented later on
in our journey. Various types of tomographic systems including opto-acoustic tomography based on sound produced by pulsed light, positron emission tomography, optical
coherence tomography and the common sonography also allow the production of film
sequences.
An unusual imaging method is muon tomography, an imaging method that uses the
muons in cosmic rays to detect heavy metals in boxes, luggage and trucks. This method is
particularly interesting for searching for hidden heavy metals, such as plutonium, which
scatter muons much more strongly than other materials such as iron.

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Vol. V, page 153

F I G U R E 117 A set-up for high-resolution X-ray tomography, and two examples of images produced
with it: a cross-section of a coffee bean (lower left) with a size of 8 mm, and a three-dimensional
reconstruction of the exoskeleton of a foraminiferan, with a diameter of only 0.5 mm ( Manuel Dierick).

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4 images and the eye optics

Fraunhofer IIS).

the eye and the brain: observing images

Challenge 172 s

Sometimes we see less than there is. Close your left eye, look at the white spot in
Figure 119, bring the page slowly towards your eye, and pay attention to the middle lines.
At a distance of about 15 to 20 cm the middle line will seem uninterrupted. Why?
On the other hand, sometimes we see more than there is, as Figures 120 and 121 show.
The first shows that parallel lines can look skewed, and the second show a so-called Hermann lattice, named after its discoverer.* The Hermann lattice of Figure 121, discovered
* Ludimar Hermann (18381914), Swiss physiologist. The lattices are often falsely called Hering lattices
after the man who made Hermanns discovery famous.

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Do we see what exists?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 119 A limitation of the eye (see text).

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 118 An X-ray CT image of a modern passenger car, with a resolution of less than 1 mm (

the eye and the brain: observing images

167

F I G U R E 120 What is the angle between the thin lines between the squares?
Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

* See Hermann von Helmholtz, Handbuch der physiologischen Optik, 1867. This famous classic is
available in English as Handbook of Physiological Optics, Dover, 1962. The Prussian physician, physicist and
science politician born as Hermann Helmholtz (b. 1821 Potsdam, d. 1894 Charlottenburg) was famous for
his works on optics, acoustics, electrodynamics, thermodynamics, epistemology and geometry. He founded

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Ref. 128

by Elke Lingelbach in 1995, is especially striking. Variations of these lattices are now used
to understand the mechanisms at the basis of human vision. For example, they can be
used to determine how many light sensitive cells in the retina are united to one signal
pathway towards the brain. The illusions are angle dependent because this number is also
angle dependent.
Our eyes also see things differently: the retina sees an inverted image of the world.
There is a simple method to show this, due to Helmholtz.* You need only a needle and

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 121 The Lingelbach lattice: do you see white, grey, or black dots at the crossings?

168

4 images and the eye optics

F I G U R E 122 An example of an infrared photograph, slightly mixed with a colour image ( Serge

Challenge 173 ny

several physics institutions across Germany. He was one of the first to propagate the idea of conservation
of energy. His other important book, Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen, published in 1863, describes the
basis of acoustics and, like the Handbook, is still worth reading.

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Ref. 130

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 129

a piece of paper, e.g. this page of text. Use the needle to make two holes inside the two
letters oo. Then keep the page as close to your eye as possible, look through the two
holes towards the wall, keeping the needle vertical, a few centimetres behind the paper.
You will see two images of the needle. If you now cover the left hole with your finger, the
right needle will disappear, and vice versa. This shows that the image inside the eye, on
the retina, is inverted. Are you able to complete the proof?
Two other experiments can show the same result. If you push very lightly on the inside
of your eye (careful!), you will see a dark spot appear on the outside of your vision field.
And if you stand in a dark room and ask a friend to look at a burning candle, explore his
eye: you will see three reflections: two upright ones, reflected from the cornea and from
the lens, and a dim third one, upside-down, reflected from the retina.
Another reason that we do not see the complete image of nature is that our eyes have
a limited sensitivity. This sensitivity peaks around 560 nm; outside the red and the violet,
the eye does not detect radiation. We thus see only part of nature. For example, infrared
photographs of nature, such as the one shown in Figure 122, are interesting because they
show us something different from what we see usually. The same happens to ultraviolet
photographs, as shown in Figure 123.
Every expert of motion should also know that the sensitivity of the eye does not correspond to the brightest part of sunlight. This myth has been spread around the world
by the numerous textbooks that have copied from each other. Depending on whether
frequency or wavelength or wavelength logarithm is used, the solar spectrum peaks at
500 nm, 880 nm or 720 nm. The human eyes spectral sensitivity, like the completely different sensitivity of birds or frogs, is due to the chemicals used for detection. In short,
the human eye can only be understood by a careful analysis of its particular evolutionary history.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Augustin).

the eye and the brain: observing images

169

F I G U R E 123 How the appearance of a sunower changes with wavelength: how it looks to the human

eye, how it might look to a bird, and how it looks in the ultraviolet ( Andrew Davidhazy).

Ref. 131

The human eye

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014


free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

The eye is a better device than most modern photographic or video cameras. Despite
having only 120 million rods, or black and white pixels, and 6 million cones, or colour
pixels, the images produced by the retina are sharp and free of noise. The eye works in
the dark and in bright daylight; no modern camera achieves this. The eye also produces
few image distortions, and it automatically corrects for the various limitations of the
retina. The eye, together with the brain, has powerful autofocus, motion compensation
and image stabilization systems built in, much more powerful than those available on the
market. A section of this wonderful device is shown in Figure 124. The main limitation
of the eye is its speed. Whereas the eye produces an effective number of up to 120 images
per second under the most ideal conditions, modern video cameras can produce more
than 10 000 images per second. When developing the eye, evolution has traded speed for
resolution. To achieve high resolution, the eye continuously performs small movements,
called micronystagmus. In detail, the eye continuously oscillates around the direction of
vision with around 40 to 50 Hz. This motion increases the effective number of pixels and
also allows the rods and cones to recharge.
All vertebrate eyes have rods. In addition, on the retina of the human eye, there are
rods and three types of cones, for the colours red, green and blue. As mentioned, a much
better eye is found in birds, many reptiles and fish: they have four or more types of cones,
a ultraviolet-transparent lens, and have built-in colour filters. The fourth type of cones,
and the specific eye lens, make the eyes of birds and reptiles sensitive to near-ultraviolet
light; birds use their ultraviolet sense to find food and to distinguish males from females.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 174 s

An urban legend, spread by many medical doctors and midwives to this day, pretends that newborn babies see everything upside down. Can you explain why this idea
is wrong?
In summary, the eye is a wonder of biological evolution. Nevertheless, we have to be
careful when maintaining that seeing means observing. Examples such as these lead to
ask whether there are other limitations of our senses which are less evident. And our
walk will indeed uncover several of them.

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4 images and the eye optics

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics


copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

imaging for a healthy eye and for the most common eye problems, myopia, hyperopia and presbyopia
( NEI at NIH).

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F I G U R E 124 Top: a simplied cross section of the human eye; bottom: the comparison of the optical

the eye and the brain: observing images

Page 164

Imaging the details inside of the living eye is not easy. The retina is far a way from the
surface of the eye, so that a normal microscope cannot be used. In addition, the continuous motions of the lens and of the eye itself disturb any imaging system. Finally, two
separate developments changed the situation in the 1990.
The first breakthrough in eye imaging was the technique, mentioned above, of optical
coherence tomography. This imaging method uses a scanned low-power laser beam and
allows to image scattering media up to a depth of a few millimetres with a resolution
of the order of a few m. This microscopy technique, developed in the 1990s, allows to
observe in detail the retina of the human eye and the region below it; it also allows cross

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How can we make pictures of the inside of the eye?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Indeed, most birds whose males and females look the same to humans differ markedly
in the ultraviolet.
Birds and reptiles also have coloured oil droplets built into the top of their cones, with
each cone type containing a different oil colour. These droplets act as colour filters. In this
way, the spectral resolution of their cones is much sharper than in mammals. The sense
of colour in birds is much more evolved than in humans it would be fascinating to
watch the world with a birds eye. Birds are the best colour seers overall. They have cone
receptors for red, blue, green, ultraviolet, and, depending on the bird, for up to three more
sets of colours. A number of birds (but not many) also have a better eye resolution than
humans. Several birds also have a faster temporal resolution: humans see continuous
motion when the images follow with 30 to 120 Hz, depending on the image content and
the lighting conditions; some insects can distinguish images up to 300 Hz.
Unfortunately, in the course of evolution the eye of mammals lost two types of cones.
The primates later regained one type, in order to distinguish more clearly the tree fruit, so
important for the brain, from the surrounding leaves. But despite this change, primates
never reached the capability of the best birds eyes. Thus, of all mammals, only primates
can see full colours as human do. Bulls for example, dont; they cannot distinguish red
from blue.
Apart from rods and cones, eyes also contain a third type of receptor. These receptor
type, the photosensitive ganglion cell or intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cell, has
only been discovered in the early 1990s, sparking a whole new research field. Photosensitive ganglion cells are sensitive mainly to blue light, use melanopsin as photopigment
and are extremely slow. They are connected to the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the brain,
a small structure of the size of a grain of rice that controls our circadian hormone cycle.
For this reason you should walk a lot outside, where a lot of blue light is available, in
order to reset the bodys clock and get rid of jet-lag. Photosensitive ganglion cells also
produce the signals that control the diameter of the pupil.
It is worth recalling that drawings such as the one of Figure 124 are simplified. They do
not show the structures in the transparent part of the eye, the vitreous body, such as the
hyaloid canal, which plays an important role during the growth of the eye in the embryo
stage. In fact, the growth of the eye inside the womb is even more wonderful than its
actual function.
The microscopic structures inside the eye are also fascinating. But here we face a problem.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 132

171

172

4 images and the eye optics

F I G U R E 125 Top: an image of the eye acquired by optical coherence tomography, showing the cornea,

the lens and the retina; bottom: a drawing of the set-up for the Fourier-domain version of the
technique and a typical apparatus used by ophthalmologues ( X Y, Heidelberg Engineering).
Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

indication of the sensitivity of each cone cell ( Austin Roorda).

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Ref. 133

sections of the cornea and the lens. Through the detailed pictures it provides, optical
coherence tomography allows extremely precise diagnoses; it has profoundly changed
modern ophthalmology.
Similar progress is expected in dermatology, where optical coherence tomography allows to image the skin to a depth of about 8 mm; in the future, the technique will also
simplify cancer diagnosis for gynaecologists and otolaryngoiatrists. Endoscopic systems
are also being developed.
The second breakthrough in eye imaging was the technique of adaptive optics, a technique, also used in astronomy, that continuously and quickly changes the shape of the
imaging lens. The most beautiful pictures so far of a living human retina, such as that of
Figure 126, were made by the group of David Williams and Austin Roorda at the University at Rochester in New York using this technique. They used adaptive optics in order
to compensate for the shape variations of the lens in the eye of the patient.
The human eye produce the sensation of colour by averaging the intensity arriving at

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 126 A high quality photograph of a live human retina, including a measured (false colour)

the eye and the brain: observing images

grass

dew
(not to
scale)

head

173

Sun

for the dew on grass that is


responsible for the aureole or
Heiligenschein, and a photo
showing that it is seen only
around ones own head
( Bernt Rostad).

Challenge 175 s

How to prove youre holy


Light reflection and refraction are responsible for many effects. The originally Indian
symbol of holiness, now used throughout most of the world, is the aureole, also called
halo or Heiligenschein, a ring of light surrounding the head. You can easily observe it
around your own head. You need only to get up early in the morning and look into
the wet grass while turning your back to the Sun. You will see an aureole around your
shadow. The effect is due to the morning dew on the grass, which reflects the light back

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the red, blue and green sensitive cones. This explains the possibility, mentioned above,
of getting the same impression of colour, e.g. yellow, either by a pure yellow laser beam,
or by a suitable mixture of red and green light.
But if the light is focused on to one cone only, the eye makes mistakes. Using adaptive
optics it is possible to focus a red laser beam such that it hits a green cone only. In this
case, something strange happens: even though the light is red, the eye sees green colour!
Incidentally, Figure 126 is quite puzzling. In the human eye, the blood vessels are located in front of the cones. Why dont they appear in the picture? And why dont they
disturb us in everyday life? (The picture does not show the other type of sensitive light
cells, the rods, because the subject was in daylight; rods come to the front of the retina
only in the dark, and then produce black and white pictures.)

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Page 116

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 127 The path of light

174

Ref. 134

Ref. 135
Challenge 176 s

4 images and the eye optics

predominantly in the direction of the light source, as shown in Figure 127. The fun part
is that if you do this in a group, you will see the aureole around only your own head.
Retroreflective paint works in the same way: it contains tiny glass spheres that play
the role of the dew. A large surface of retroreflective paint, a traffic sign for example, can
also show your halo if the light source is sufficiently far away. Also the so-called glow of
the eyes of a cat at night is due to the same effect; it is visible only if you look at the cat
with a light source behind you. By the way, do Cats-eyes work like a cats eyes?
Challenges and fun curiosities about images and the eye

Ref. 137

Modern technology provides the possibilities to think anew how a microscope should
look like. Figure 129 shows a microscope that is in fact an array of thousands of microscopes. The lenses produce images on a CMOS imaging chip with 16 megapixel.

Ref. 138

Mirages often have surprising effects. In 1597, a group of sailors were stranded on Novaya
Zemlya during the winter. On 24 January they saw the Sun roughly two weeks before it
should be visible there. Such an unusual sighting is now called a Novaya Zemlya effect.

Challenge 177 s

It is possible to measure the width of a hair with a laser pointer. How?

Modern imaging techniques allow high sensitivity and high spatial resolution. As shown
in Figure 130, using a Fresnel lens, a cooled CCD sensor and a laser as a light source, it
is even possible to photograph the shadow of a single floating ion.

The eye is a wonderful organ. To learn more about it, read the beautiful book Simon Ings, The Eye A Natural History, Bloomsbury, 2007.

An important device in medicine is the endoscope. An endoscope, shown in Figure 131,

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Ref. 139

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

If a sufficient number of images is available, it is possible to identify the camera that


produced them. Every camera has a specific image noise patern; by extracting it through
clever averaging, computer software is able to support police investigations.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 136

An image sensor does not need a lens. The temple viper (or Waglers pit viper) has two
infrared sensors one is shown in Figure 128 with a resolution of 40 times 40 pixels
each, and it just has a hole instead of a lens. The pit viper uses these sensors to catch mice
even in the dark. The working of this infrared sensor has been explored and simulated
by several research groups. It is now known how the sensor acquires the data, how the
snake brain reconstructs the image, and how itachieves the high resolution.

the eye and the brain: observing images

175

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics


copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014
free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

F I G U R E 128 A collection of image sensors thus of pixel systems: A cats retina, a CCD sensor still on a
wafer, the eye of a house y, a CMOS sensor, a human retina, a multichannel plate, and a temple vipers
infrared pit ( Wikimedia, Austin Roorda, Hamamatsu Photonics, Guido Westhoff/Leo van Hemmen).

176

4 images and the eye optics

F I G U R E 129 A at microscope based on stacked microlens arrays in front of a conventional objective


and an image it produces ( Frank Wippermann).

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

single ytterbium ion levitated in


an ion trap and illuminated
with a laser; picture size is
about 16 m in both directions
( Dave Kielpinski).

Challenge 179 s

The Sun is visible to the naked eye only up to a distance of 50 light years. Is this true?

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Challenge 178 e

allows to look into a body cavity through a very small hole. It is a metal tube, typically
with a diameter of around 5 mm and a length of 300 mm. How would you build one?
(The device must resist at least 150 disinfection cycles in an autoclave; each cycle implies
staying at 134C and 3 bar for three hours.) Made of a sequence of carefully designed
cylinder lenses, endoscopes allow surgeons to watch the inside of a human body through
a tiny hole, thus avoiding large cuts and dangerous operations. Endoscopes have saved
many lives, and their production and development employs a large industry.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 130 The shadow of a

the eye and the brain: observing images

177

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

high brightness the more so the higher the glass/air ratio is ( Karl Storz).

Ref. 140
Challenge 180 s

Grass is usually greener on the other side of the fence. Can you give an explanation based
on observations for this statement?

Challenge 181 s

It is said that astronomers have telescopes so powerful that they could see whether somebody would be lighting a match on the Moon. Can this be true?

Total refraction is an interesting phenomenon it itself; but its details are even more fasci-

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 131 The endoscope invented by Hopkins, in which rod lenses allow large eld of view and

178

4 images and the eye optics

The GoosHnchen shift

incoming
ray

path predicted
by geometric optics

observed
reflection

The ImbertFedorov shift

glass
incoming,
polarized
ray

air

The Goos-Hnchen shift and angular deviation


in metallic reflection

air

path predicted
by geometric optics

glass

observed
reflection

air

path predicted
by geometric optics

metal
F I G U R E 132 The Goos-Hnchen shift and other deviations from geometric reection: In total reection,

Ref. 141

Materials that absorb light strongly also emit strongly. Why then does a door with dark
paint in the sun get hotter than a door that is painted white? The reason is that the emission takes place at a much lower wavelength than that of visible light; for everyday situations and temperatures, emission is around 10 m. And at that wavelength, almost
all paints are effectively black, with emissivities of the order of 0.9, irrespective of their

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

nating. In 1943 Fritz Goos and Hilda Hnchen showed that the reflected beam is slightly
shifted; in other words, the reflected beam is effectively reflected by a plane that lies
slightly behind the material interface. This so-called Goos-Hnchen shift can be as large
as a few wavelengths and is due travelling evanescent waves in the thinner medium.
In fact, recent research into this topic discovered something even more interesting.
When reflection is explored with high precision, one discovers that no reflected light
ray is exactly on the position one expects them: there is also a lateral shift, the Imbert
Fedorov shift, and even the angle of the reflected ray can deviate from the expected one.
The fascinating details depend on the polarization of the beam, on the divergence of
the beam and on the material properties of the reflecting layer. All this is stilla topic of
research.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

the reected light beam is slightly displaced from its naively expected position; in metallic reection,
even more deviations are observed.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

incoming,
polarized
ray

observed
reflection

the eye and the brain: observing images

179

colour. And for the same reason, when you paint your home radiator, the colour is not
important.

Ref. 142

When two laser beams cross at a small angle, they can form light pulses that seem to
move faster than light. Does this contradict special relativity?

Challenge 183 ny
Ref. 143

Colour blindness was discovered by the great English scientist John Dalton (17661844)
on himself. Can you imagine how he found out? It affects, in all its forms, one in 20 men.
In many languages, a man who is colour blind is called daltonic. Women are almost never
daltonic, as the property is linked to defects on the X chromosome. If you are colour
blind, you can check to which type you belong with the help of Figure 133.

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Challenge 184 e

Artificial colour blindness is induced by certain types of illumination. For example, violet
light is used to reduce intravenous drug consumption, because violet light does not allow
finding veins under the skin.
Artificial contrast enhancement with illumination is also useful. Pink light is used by
beauticians to highlight blemishes, so that the skin can be cleaned as well as possible. In
2007, the police officer Mike Powis in Nottingham discovered that this acne light could
be used to reduce the crime rate; since acne is not fashionable, pink light deters youth
from gathering in groups, and thus calms the environment where it is installed.
Yellowish light is used by by supermarkets to increase their sales of fruits and vegetables. In yellow light, tomatoes look redder and salad looks greener. Check by yourself:
you will not find a single supermarket without these lights installed over fruits and vegetables.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 182 s

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 133 How natural colours (top) change for three types of colour blind: deutan, protan and tritan
( Michael Douma).

180

4 images and the eye optics

Light beams, such as those emitted from lasers, are usually thought of as thin lines. However, light beams can also be tubes. Tubular laser beams, i.e., Bessel beams of high order,
are used in modern research experiments to guide plasma channels and sparks.

Challenge 185 s

Is it possible to see stars from the bottom of a deep pit or of a well, even during the day,
as is often stated?

The simplest imaging system are eye glasses. A child that has no proper glasses misses
an important experience: seeing the stars. Such a child will not understand the famous
statement by Immanuel Kant: Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing
admiration and awe, the more often and persistently thought considers them: the starred
sky above me and the moral law inside me. Always be sure that children can see the stars.

Ref. 144

Challenge 186 s

How can you measure the power of the Sun with your eyes closed?

Even in a dark, moonless and starless night, a forest is not dark. You can see luminescent
mushrooms (of which there are over 70 different species), luminescent moulds, you can
see sparks when you take off your pullover or when your friend bites a mint bonbon or
when you unroll a roll of adhesive tape or open a letter.

Challenge 187 d

How do you produce X-rays with a roll of adhesive tape?

The number of optical illusions is enormous, and there are many time-wasting websites
devoted to the topic. Films often use the so-called Ames room to transform actors into
dwarfs. It is shown in Figure 134.

Page 173

The eye and the brain sometimes add false colours, as we have seen above in the discus-

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copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Humans are the only primates that have white eyes. All apes have brown eyes, so that it
is impossible to see in which direction the are looking. Apes make extensive use of this
impossibility: they often turn their head in one direction, pretending to look somewhere,
but turn their eyes in another. In other words, brown eyes are useful for deception. The
same effect is achieved in humans by wearing dark sunglasses. So if you see somebody
with sunglasses in a situation where there is no sunlight, you know that he or she is
behaving like an ape.
Apes use this type of deception to flirt with the opposite sex without their steady partner noticing. Sunglasses are tools for unfaithful.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

the eye and the brain: observing images

181

F I G U R E 134 Ames rooms in Paris and in San Francisco ( Sergio Davini, David Darling).

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

central dot for twenty


seconds: the colours will
disappear ( Kitaoka
Akiyoshi).

X-ray imaging is so impressive that it has become a form of art. One of the foremost Xray artists is Nick Veasey, and two of his works are shown in Figure 136. Among many

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

sion of cones. Also Haidingers brush is an example of added colours. In contrast, sometimes the brain and the eye make colours disappear, as shown in Figure 135. (The effect
only works with a colour version of the figure.) The example is taken from the beautiful
collection of visual illusions at www.psy.ritsumei.ac.jp/~akitaoka/color9e.html. Several
related illusions, based on this one, use moving coloured dots.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 135 Look at the

182

4 images and the eye optics

examples, he has even taken X-ray images of complete buses and aeroplanes.

Lenses are important components in most optical systems. Approximately, the distance
of the lens focus f , the distance of the object to be imaged o, and the distance of its image
i are related by the thin lens formula

Challenge 188 e

It is not hard to deduce it with the help of raytracing.


If you ever are in the situation to design a lens, you will want to know the relation
between the shape of a lens and its focal distance. It turns out that there are two types
of lenses: The first type are spherical lenses which are easy and thus cheap to make, but
whose images are not perfect. The second lens type are aspherical lenses, which are hard
to fabricate, more expensive, but provide much better image quality. High-quality optical
systems always contain aspherical lenses.
For historical reasons, most books on optics teach readers the approximate relation
between the geometric radii of a thin spherical lens, its refractive index n and its focal
distance:
1
1
1
= (n 1)( + ) .
(82)
f
R1 R2
This is called the lensmaker formula. Most aspherical lenses are apprximately spherical,
so that the formula helps as a rough first estimate also in these cases.

Imaging is an important part of modern industry. Without laser printers, photocopying

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Challenge 189 e

(81)

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

1 1 1
= + .
f
o i

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 136 The beauty of X-rays: X-ray images of a person (taken with a corpse) and of a sea shell
( Nick Veasey).

the eye and the brain: observing images

CD
track pitch 1.6 m
minimum pit length 0.8 m

183

DVD
Blue Ray Disk
track pitch 0.74 m
track pitch 0.32 m
minimum pit length 0.4 m minimum pit length 0.15m

F I G U R E 137 Composed image of the tracks and the laser spot in a drive reading a CD, a DVD and a

blue ray disk ( Wikimedia).

Challenge 190 e

What are the best colour images one can produce today? At present, affordable images
on paper have about 400 dots/mm, or dots of about 2.5 m. What is the theoretical maximum? You will find that several unserious research groups claim to have produced colour
images with a resolution that is higher than the theoretical maximum.

Vol. I, page 272


Challenge 191 e

Ultrasound imaging is regularly used in medical applications. As mentioned earlier on,


unfortunately it is not safe for imaging pregnancies. Is ultrasound imaging, though not
an optical imaging method, a type of tomography?

CMOS cameras, batteries and radio transmitters have become so small that they can be
made into a package with the size of a pill. Such a camera can be swallowed, and with
electrodes attached to the belly of a person, one can record movies of the intestine while
the person is continuing its daily activities.

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Additional types of videos cameras are still being developed. Examples are time-of-flight
cameras, laser scanning cameras, ultraviolet video cameras, video cameras that measure
polarization and infrared video cameras. The latter cameras will soon appear in cars,
in order to recognize people and animals from the heat radiation they emit and help
avoiding accidents.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 106

machines, CD players, DVD players, microscopes, digital photographic cameras, film


and video cameras, lithography machines for integrated circuit production, telescopes,
film projectors, our world would look much more boring. Nowadays, designing optical
systems is done with the help of dedicated software packages. They allow to calculate image quality, temperature effects and mechanical tolerances with high precision. Despite
the beauty of optical design, there is a shortage of experts on this fascinating field, across
the world.

184

4 images and the eye optics

F I G U R E 138 One of the many kinds of Benham


wheels. Rotating it with a top, a CD player or a
drill is the simplest way to produce Fechner
colours, i.e., false colours that appear from
intermittent black and white patterns.

The most common optical systems are those found inside CD and DVD drives. If you ever
have the opportunity to take one apart, do it. They are fascinating pieces of technology,
in which every cubic millimetre has been optimized by hundreds of engineers. Can you
imagine how a CD or DVD player works, starting from the photographs of Figure 137?

The most expensive optical systems are not those found on espionage satellites which
can read the headlines of a newspaper from space but those found in wafer steppers.
Wafer steppers are machines used for the production of electronic integrated circuits. In
such steppers, a metal mask is imaged, using light from a UV laser, onto a photo-resist
covered silicon wafer. The optical systems used have the size of an average human, are
precise within a few nanometres, and cost more than six million Euro a piece.

A rotating wheel colored in a specific black and white pattern, such as Benhams wheel,
will produce false colour effects in the eye. Unfortunately, a video of the effect does not
work inside a pdf file such as the one of this book; instead, have a look at Kenneth
Brechers website at lite.bu.edu/vision/applets/Color/Benham/Benham.html or lite.bu.
edu/vision-flash10/applets/Color/Benham/Benham.html. False colours can also be induced by flickering monochromatic images on computer screens. All these false colours
are mainly due to the different repsonse times of red, green and blue cones.

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Challenge 192 e

One can buy transparent window panes that can be switched to translucent and back
thus from a clear glass to milk glass and back by toggling an electrical switch. How do
they work?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

the eye and the brain: observing images

185

Challenge 193 d

In the beginning, the aim of the computer display industry was to produce photorealistic
displays, i.e., displays that could not be distingusihed from a photograph. This aim has
become reality. In 2012, a technology visionary propsed that the next aim of the industry
should be to produce windowrealistic displays, i.e., displays that could not be distingusihed from a window. This should include the three-dimensionality of everything that is
shown inside such a display. Will such a display ever be possible?

Ref. 145

The size of the eye in mammals depends on their maximum running speed. This dependence has been verified for 50 different species. Interestingly, the correlation does not
hold for the flying speed of birds.

Summary on optics

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

The art and science of making images is central to modern health care, industry, science, entertainment and telecommunications. Imaging is in large part the result of bending light beams in predefined ways and detecting them. All imaging systems, biological
or human-made, are based on reflection, refraction or diffraction combined with pixel
detectors. All imaging systems that produce high-quality images, biological or humanmade, use clever combinations of materials science, sensors, actuators and signal processing. The field is still evolving.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 146

Fascinating modern research is now exploring the working of the signal processing by
the neurons in the retina. The eyes do not send pixel data to the brain, but data streams
processed in about a dozen different ways. Explorations have shown how the ganglions
in the retina provide a navigational horizon, how they detect objects moving against the
background of the visual field, and how they subtract the motion of the head. The coming
years and decades will provide many additional results; several data channels between the
eye and the brain are still unknown.

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Chapter 5

ELECTROMAGNETIC EFFECT S

Ref. 147

Is lightning a discharge? Electricity in the atmosphere

Ref. 149

Ref. 150

Ref. 151

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Ref. 148

* Clouds have Latin names. They were introduced in 1802 by the English explorer Luke Howard (17721864),
who found that all clouds could be seen as variations of three types, which he called cirrus, cumulus and
stratus. He called the combination of all three, the rain cloud, nimbus (from the Latin big cloud). Todays
internationally agreed system has been slightly adjusted and distinguishes clouds by the height of their lower
edge. The clouds starting above a height of 6 km are the cirrus, the cirrocumulus and the cirrostratus; those
starting at heights of between 2 and 4 km are the altocumulus, the altostratus and the nimbostratus; clouds
starting below a height of 2 km are the stratocumulus, the stratus and the cumulus. The rain or thunder
cloud, which crosses all heights, is today called cumulonimbus. For beautiful views of clouds, see the www.
goes.noaa.gov and www.osei.noaa.gov websites.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Page 19

Inside a thunderstorm cloud, especially inside tall cumulonimbus clouds,* charges are
separated by collision between the large graupel ice crystals falling due to their weight
and the small hail ice crystallites rising due to thermal upwinds. Since the collision takes
part in an electric field, charges are separated in a way similar to the mechanism in the
Kelvin generator. Discharge takes place when the electric field becomes too high, taking
a strange path influenced by ions created in the air by cosmic rays. (There are however,
at least ten other competing explanations for charge separation in clouds.) It seems that
cosmic rays are at least partly responsible for the zigzag shape of lightning. For a striking
example, see Figure 139.
A lightning flash typically transports 20 to 30 C of charge, with a peak current of up
to 20 kA. But lightning flashes have also strange properties. First, they appear at fields
around 200 kV/m (at low altitude) instead of the 2 MV/m of normal sparks. Second,
lightning emits radio pulses. Third, lightning emits X-rays and gamma rays. Russian researchers, from 1992 onwards explained all three effects by a newly discovered discharge
mechanism. At length scales of 50 m and more, cosmic rays can trigger the appearance of
lightning; the relativistic energy of these rays allows for a discharge mechanism that does
not exist for low energy electrons. At relativistic energy, so-called runaway breakdown

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

ooking carefully, the atmosphere is full of electrical effects. The most impressive,
ightning, is now reasonably well understood. However, it took decades and a
arge number of researchers to discover and put together all the parts of the puzzle. Also below our feet there is something important going on: the hot magma below
the continental crust produces the magnetic field of the Earth. Strong magnetic fields
can be used for levitation. We explore these topics first and then give an overview about
the many effects that fields produce.

electromagnetic effects and challenges

187

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

leads to discharges at much lower fields than usual laboratory sparks. The multiplication
of these relativistic electrons also leads to the observed radio and gamma ray emissions.
Incidentally, you have a 75 % chance of survival after being hit by lightning, especially

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F I G U R E 140 Cumulonimbus clouds from ground and from space (NASA).

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 139 A rare photograph of a lightning stroke hitting a tree ( Niklas Montonen).

188

5 electromagnetic effects

graupel
electric
field

++

++ ++

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics


copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

namely charging of graupel particles by collision with ice particles, the cloud charge distribution, the
three-dimensional structure and the large scale processes discovered in the past decades from
aeroplanes ( nordique, NASA, NOAA).

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F I G U R E 141 The charging and discharging of clouds: the most probable microscopic mechanism,

electromagnetic effects and challenges

Ref. 153

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Challenge 195 s

* If you are ever hit by lightning and survive, go to the hospital! Many people died three days later having
failed to do so. A lightning strike often leads to coagulation effects in the blood. These substances block the
kidneys, and one can die three days later because of kidney failure. The remedy is to have dialysis treatment.
** For images, have a look at the interesting elf.gi.alaska.edu/, www.fma-research.com/spriteres.htm and
pasko.ee.psu.edu/Nature websites.
*** The Earth is thus charged to about 1 MC. Can you confirm this?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 152

if you are completely wet, as in that case the current will flow outside the skin. Usually,
wet people who are hit lose all their clothes, as the evaporating water tears them off. Rapid
resuscitation is essential to help somebody to recover after a hit.*
As a note, you might know how to measure the distance of a lightning by counting
the seconds between the lightning and the thunder and multiplying this by the speed of
sound, 330 m/s; it is less well known that one can estimate the length of the lightning bolt
by measuring the duration of the thunder, and multiplying it by the same factor.
In the 1990s more electrical details about thunderstorms became known. Airline pilots
and passengers sometime see weak and coloured light emissions spreading from the top
of thunderclouds. There are various types of such emissions: blue jets and mostly red
sprites and elves, which are somehow due to electric fields between the cloud top and
the ionosphere. The details are still under investigation, and the mechanisms are not yet
clear.**
Lightnings are part of the electrical circuit around the Earth. This fascinating part
of geophysics would lead us too far from the aim of our mountain ascent. But every
physicist should know that there is a vertical electric field of between 100 and 300 V/m
on a clear day, as discovered already in 1752. (Can you guess why it is not noticeable in
everyday life? And why despite its value it cannot be used to extract large amounts of
energy?) The field is directed from the ionosphere down towards the ground; in fact the
Earth is permanently negatively charged, and in clear weather current flows downwards
(electrons flow upwards) through the clear atmosphere, trying to discharge our planet.
The current of about 1 to 2 kA is spread over the whole planet; it is possibly due to the
ions formed by cosmic radiation. (The resistance between the ground and the ionosphere
is about 200 , so the total voltage drop is about 200 kV.) At the same time, the Earth
is constantly being charged by several effects: there is a dynamo effect due to the tides
of the atmosphere and there are currents induced by the magnetosphere. But the most
important charging effect is lightning. In other words, contrary to what one may think,
lightning does not discharge the ground, it actually charges it up!*** Of course, lightning
does discharge the cloud to ground potential difference; but by doing so, it actually sends
(usually) a negative charge down to the Earth as a whole. Thunderclouds are batteries;
the energy from the batteries comes from the thermal uplifts mentioned above, which
transport charge against the global ambient electrical field.
Using a few electrical measurement stations that measure the variations of the electrical field of the Earth it is possible to locate the position of all the lightning that comes
down towards the Earth at a given moment. (Distributed around the world, there are
about a hundred lightning flashes per second.) Present research also aims at measuring
the activity of the related electrical sprites and elves in this way.
The ions in air play a role in the charging of thunderclouds via the charging of ice
crystals and rain drops. In general, all small particles in the air are electrically charged.
When aeroplanes and helicopters fly, they usually hit more particles of one charge than

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 194 s

189

190

Ref. 154

Ref. 155

5 electromagnetic effects

Ref. 157

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Ref. 156

For hundreds of years, people have reported sightings of so-called ball lightning. Usually
they were noticed during thunderstorms, often after a lightning had struck. With a few
exceptions, nobody took these reports seriously, because no reproducible data existed.
When microwave ovens become popular, several methods to produce ball-shaped discharges became known. To observe one, just stick a toothpick into a candle, light the
toothpick, and put it into (somebody elses) microwave oven at maximum power. This
set-up produces a beautiful ball-like discharge. However, humans do not live in a microwave oven; therefore, this mechanism is not related to ball lightning.
The experimental situation changed completely in the years 1999 to 2001. In those
years the Russian physicists Anton Egorov and Gennady Shabanov discovered a way to
produce plasma clouds, or plasmoids, floating in air, using three main ingredients: water,

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Does ball lightning exist?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

of the other. As a result, aeroplanes and helicopters are charged up during flight. When
a helicopter is used to rescue people from a raft in high seas, the rope pulling the people
upwards must first be earthed by hanging it in the water; if this is not done, the people
on the raft could die from an electrical shock when they touch the rope, as has happened
a few times in the past.
The charges in the atmosphere have many other effects. Recent experiments have confirmed what was predicted back in the early twentieth century: lightning emits X-rays.
The confirmation is not easy though; it is necessary to put a detector near the lightning
flash. To achieve this, the lightning has to be directed into a given region. This is possible
using a missile pulling a metal wire, the other end of which is attached to the ground.
These experimental results are now being collated into a new description of lightning
which also explains the red-blue sprites above thunderclouds. In particular, the processes
also imply that inside clouds, electrons can be accelerated up to energies of a few MeV.
Why are sparks and lightning blue? This turns out to be a material property: the colour
comes from the material that happens to be excited by the energy of the discharge, usually
air. This excitation is due to the temperature of 30 kK inside the channel of a typical
lightning flash. For everyday sparks, the temperature is much lower. Depending on the
situation, the colour may arise from the gas between the two electrodes, such as oxygen
or nitrogen, or it may due to the material evaporated from the electrodes by the discharge.
For an explanation of such colours, as for the explanation of all colours due to materials,
we need to wait for the next part of our walk, on quantum theory.
But not only electric fields are dangerous. Also time-varying electromagnetic fields
can be. In 1997, in beautiful calm weather, a Dutch hot air balloon approached the powerful radio transmitter in Hilversum. After travelling for a few minutes near to the antenna,
the gondola suddenly detached from the balloon, killing all the passengers inside.
An investigation team reconstructed the facts a few weeks later. In modern gas balloons the gondola is suspended by high quality nylon ropes. To avoid damage by lightning and in order to avoid electrostatic charging problems all these nylon ropes contain
thin metal wires which form a large equipotential surface around the whole balloon. Unfortunately, in the face of the radio transmitter, these thin metal wires absorbed radio
energy from the transmitter, became red hot, and melted the nylon wires. It was the first
time that this had ever been observed.

electromagnetic effects and challenges

191

Ref. 159

We learned in the section on general relativity that gravitation has the same effects as
acceleration. This means that a charge kept fixed at a certain height is equivalent to a
charge accelerated by 9.8 m/s2 , which would imply that it radiates electromagnetically,
since all accelerated charges radiate. However, the world around us is full of charges at
fixed heights, and there is no such radiation. How is this possible?
The question has been a pet topic for many years. Generally speaking, the concept of
radiation is not observer invariant: If one observer detects radiation, a second one does

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Does gravity make charges radiate?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 158

metal and high voltage. If high voltage is applied to submerged metal electrodes of the
proper shape and make, plasma clouds emerge from the water, about 10 to 20 cm in size,
float above the surface, and disappear after about half a second. Two examples can be
seen in Figure 142.
The phenomenon of floating plasmoids is still being studied. There are variations in
shape, colour, size and lifetime. The spectrum of observations and techniques will surely
evolve in the coming years.
An even more astonishing effect was published in 2007. A Brazilian research team
found a way to make golf-ball sized discharges that seem to roll along the floor for as
long as 8 s. Their method was beautifully simple: with the help of a 25 V power supply,
they passed a current of 140 A through an arc at the surface of a silicon wafer. They
discovered that small silicon particles detach and move away, while being surrounded
by a luminous glow. These luminous clouds can wander around the table and floor of the
laboratory, until they extinguish.
It seems that these phenomena could explain a number of ball lightning observations.
But it is equally possible that other effects will still be discovered.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 142 A oating plasma cloud produced in the laboratory ( Sergei Emelin and Alexei Pirozerski).

192

5 electromagnetic effects

ocean
crust
mantle

solid core

F I G U R E 143 The structure of our planet ( MPI-Chemie, Mainz/GEO).

Ref. 30

The classical description of electrodynamics is coherent and complete; nevertheless there


are still many subjects of research. Here are a few of them.
The origin of the magnetic field of the Earth, the other planets, the Sun and even of
the galaxy is a fascinating topic. The way that the convection of fluids inside the planets
generates magnetic fields, an intrinsically three-dimensional problem, the influence of
turbulence, of non-linearities and of chaos makes it a surprisingly complex question.
The details of the generation of the magnetic field of the Earth, usually called the geodynamo, began to appear only in the second half of the twentieth century, when the knowledge of the Earths interior reached a sufficient level. The Earths interior starts below the

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Planetary magnetic fields

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 160

not necessarily do so as well. The exact way a radiation field changes from one observer
to the other depends on the type of relative motion and on the field itself.
A detailed exploration of the problem shows that for a uniformly accelerated charge,
an observer undergoing the same acceleration only detects an electrostatic field. In contrast, an inertial observer detects a radiation field. Since gravity is (to a high precision)
equivalent to uniform acceleration, we get a simple result: gravity does not make electrical charges radiate for an observer at rest with respect to the charge, as is observed. The
results holds true also in the quantum theoretical description.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

liquid core

electromagnetic effects and challenges

Challenge 196 d

193

Ref. 162

Ref. 164

Ref. 161

* In 2005, it has been reported that the inner core of the Earth seems to rotate faster than the Earths crust
by up to half a degree per year.

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Ref. 163

We have seen that it is possible to move certain objects without touching them, using a
magnetic or electric field or, of course, using gravity. Is it also possible, without touching
an object, to keep it fixed, floating in mid-air? Does this type of rest exist?
It turns out that there are several methods of levitating objects. These are commonly
divided into two groups: those that consume energy and those who do not. Among the
methods that consume energy is the floating of objects on a jet of air or of water, the floating of objects through sound waves, e.g. on top of a siren, or through a laser beam coming from below, and the floating of conducting material, even of liquids, in strong radiofrequency fields. Levitation of liquids or solids by strong ultrasound waves is presently
becoming popular in laboratories. All these methods give stationary levitation. Another
group of energy consuming methods sense the way a body is falling and kick it up again
in the right way via a feedback loop; these methods are non-stationary and usually use
magnetic fields to keep the objects from falling. The magnetic train being built in Shanghai by a German consortium is levitated this way. The whole train, including the passengers, is levitated and then moved forward using electromagnets. It is thus possible, using
magnets, to levitate many tens of tonnes of material.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Levitation

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Earths crust. The crust is typically 30 to 40 km thick (under the continents), though it
is thicker under high mountains and thinner near volcanoes or under the oceans. As already mentioned, the crust consists of large segments, the plates, that move with respect
to one other. The Earths interior is divided into the mantle the first 2900 km from the
surface and the core. The core is made up of a liquid outer core, 2210 km thick, and
a solid inner core of 1280 km radius. (The temperature of the core is not well known; it
is believed to be 6 to 7 kK. Can you find a way to determine it? The temperature might
have decreased a few hundred kelvin during the last 3000 million years.)
The Earths core consists mainly of iron that has been collected from the asteroids that
collided with the Earth during its youth. It seems that the liquid and electrically conducting outer core acts as a dynamo that keeps the magnetic field going. The magnetic energy
comes from the kinetic energy of the outer core, which rotates with respect to the Earths
surface; the fluid can act as a dynamo because, apart from rotating, it also convects from
deep inside the Earth to more shallow depths, driven by the temperature gradients between the hot inner core and the cooler mantle. Huge electric currents flow in complex
ways through these liquid layers, maintained by friction, and create the magnetic field.
Why this field switches orientation at irregular intervals of between a few tens of thousands and a few million years, is one of the central questions. The answers are difficult;
experiments are not yet possible, 150 years of measurements is a short time when compared with the last transition about 730 000 years ago and computer simulations are
extremely involved. Since the field measurements started, the dipole moment of the magnetic field has steadily diminished, presently by 5% a year, and the quadrupole moment
has steadily increased. Maybe we are heading towards a surprise.* (By the way, the study
of galactic magnetic fields is even more complex, and still in its infancy.)

194

Ref. 165

5 electromagnetic effects

For levitation methods that do not consume energy all such methods are necessarily stationary a well-known limitation can be found by studying Coulombs law of
electrostatics: no static arrangement of electric fields can levitate a charged object in free
space or in air. The same result is valid for gravitational fields and massive objects;* in
other words, we cannot produce a local minimum of potential energy in the middle of a
box using electric or gravitational fields. This impossibility is called Earnshaws theorem.
Speaking mathematically, the solutions of the Laplace equation = 0, the so-called
harmonic functions, have minima or maxima only at the border, and never inside the domain of definition. (You proved this yourself on page 165 in volume I.) The theorem can
also be proved by noting that given a potential minimum in free space, Gauss theorem
for a sphere around that minimum requires that a source of the field be present inside,
which is in contradiction with the original assumption.
We can deduce that it is also impossible to use electric fields to levitate an electrically
neutral body in air: the potential energy U of such a body, with volume V and dielectric
constant , in an environment of dielectric constant 0 , is given by

Challenge 197 ny

Since the electric field E never has a maximum in the absence of space charge, and since
for all materials > 0 , there cannot be a minimum of potential energy in free space for
a neutral body.**
To sum up, using static electric or static gravitational fields it is impossible to keep an
object from falling; neither quantum mechanics, which incorporates phenomena such as
antimatter, nor general relativity, including phenomena such as black holes, change this
basic result.
For static magnetic fields, the argument is analogous to electrical fields: the potential
energy U of a magnetizable body of volume V and permeability in a medium with
permeability 0 containing no current is given by
1 1
1
U
= B2
V
2 0

Page 38

Vol. I, page 98
Ref. 166
Challenge 198 ny

and due to the inequality B 2 0, isolated maxima of a static magnetic field are not
possible, only isolated minima. Therefore, it is impossible to levitate paramagnetic ( >
o ) or ferromagnetic ( 0 ) materials such as steel, including bar magnets, which are
all attracted, and not repelled to magnetic field maxima.
There are thus two ways to realize magnetic levitation: levitating a diamagnet or using a time-dependent field. Diamagnetic materials ( < 0 , or r = /0 < 1) were
discovered shortly after Earnshaw published his theorem, and allow circumventing it.
* To the disappointment of many science-fiction addicts, this would even be true if a negative mass existed.
And even though gravity is not really due to a field, but to space-time curvature, the result still holds in
general relativity.
** It is possible, however, to levitate gas bubbles in liquids trap them to prevent them from rising would
be a better expression because in such a case the dielectric constant of the environment is higher than that
of the gas. Can you find a liquidgas combination where bubbles fall instead of rise?

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Challenge 200 e

(84)

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 199 ny

(83)

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

U
1
= ( 0 ) E 2 .
V
2

electromagnetic effects and challenges

195

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 167

Ref. 169

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Ref. 168

Indeed, diamagnetic materials, such as graphite or water, can be levitated by static magnetic fields because they are attracted to magnetic field minima. In fact, it is possible to
levitate magnets if one uses a combination containing diamagnets. A few cases that can
easily be replicated on a kitchen table are shown in Figure 144.
Another well-known example of diamagnetic levitation is the levitation of superconductors. Indeed, superconductors, at least those of type I, are perfects diamagnets ( = 0).
In some cases, superconductors can even be suspended in mid-air, below a magnet. Also
single atoms with a magnetic moment are diamagnets; they are routinely levitated this
way and have also been photographed in this state. Single neutrons, which have a magnetic dipole moment, have been kept in magnetic bottles through magnetic levitation,

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 144 Stable diamagnetic levitation of a graphite bar over rectangular permanent magnets
(above) and of two graphite plates, one seen from above and another from the side (centre); below,
levitation of a 4 mm diameter NdFeB permanent magnet, above a graphite plate and between two
graphite plates, near a large ring magnet (not shown) ( Joachim Schlichting from Ref. 167).

196

5 electromagnetic effects

F I G U R E 145 Trapping a metal sphere using a variable speed drill

and a plastic saddle.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

a spinning magnetic sphere levitating above a large ring magnet ( Kay Kublenz).

Challenge 201 ny

Ref. 164

Ref. 162

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Ref. 170

until they decay.


Diamagnets levitate if B 2 > 20 /, where is the mass density of the object and
= 1 /0 its magnetic susceptibility. Since is typically about 105 and of order
1000 kg/m3 , field gradients of about 1000 T2 /m are needed. In other words, levitation
requires fields changes of 10 T over 10 cm, which is nowadays common for high field
laboratory magnets.
Recently, scientists have levitated pieces of wood and of plastic, strawberries, water
droplets, liquid helium droplets as large as 2 cm, grasshoppers, fish and frogs (all alive
and without any harm) using magnetic levitation. Indeed, animals, like humans, are all
made of diamagnetic material. Humans themselves have not yet been levitated, but the
feat, expected to require 40 T and large amounts of electrical power, is being planned
and worked on. In fact, a similar feat has already been achieved: diamagnetic levitation
is being explored for the levitation of passenger trains, especially in Japan, though with
little commercial success.
Time-dependent electrical or magnetic fields, e.g. periodic fields, can lead to levitation
in many different ways without any consumption of energy. This is one of the methods
used in the magnetic bearings of turbomolecular vacuum pumps. Also single charged
particles, such as ions and electrons, are now regularly levitated with Paul traps and Pen-

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 146 Floating magic nowadays available in toy shops, left, with a spinning top and, right, with

electromagnetic effects and challenges

Ref. 162
Ref. 171

Ref. 172
Ref. 173

Vol. V, page 196

197

ning traps. The mechanical analogy is shown in Figure 145.


Figure 146 shows a toy that allows you to personally levitate a spinning top or a spinning magnetic sphere in mid-air above a ring magnet, a quite impressive demonstration
of levitation for anybody looking at it. The photo shows that is not hard to build such a
device yourself.
Even free electrons can be levitated, letting them float above the surface of fluid helium. In the most recent twist of the science of levitation, in 1995 Stephen Haley predicted that the suspension height of small magnetic particles above a superconducting
ring should be quantized. However, the prediction has not been verified by experiment
yet.
For the sake of completeness we mention that nuclear forces cannot be used for levitation in everyday life, as their range is limited to a few femtometres. However, we will
see later that the surface matter of the Sun is prevented from falling into the centre by
these interactions; we could thus say that it is indeed levitated by nuclear interactions.

Challenge 202 s

Ref. 174

TA B L E 17 Selected matter properties related to electromagnetism, showing among other things the

role it plays in the constitution of matter; at the same time a short overview of atomic, solid state, uid
and business physics.

Propert y

Example

thermal radiation or heat every object


radiation or incandescence
Challenge 203 ny

Definition
temperature-dependent radiation emitted
by any macroscopic amount of matter

* The issue is far from simple: which one of the levitation methods described above is used by tables or
chairs?

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Challenge 204 r

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Vol. V, page 64

The levitation used by magicians mostly falls into another class. When David Copperfield, a magician performing for young girls at the end of the twentieth century, flies
during his performances, he does so by being suspended on thin fishing lines that are
rendered invisible by clever lighting arrangements. (How could one check this?) In fact,
if we want to be precise, we should count fishing lines, plastic bags, as well as every table
and chair as levitation devices. (Tabloid journalists would even call them anti-gravity
devices.) Contrary to our impression, a hanging or lying object is not really in contact
with the suspension, if we look at the critical points with a microscope.* More about this
in the quantum part of our walk.
But if this is the case, why dont we fall through a table or through the floor? We
started the study of mechanics by stating that a key property of matter its solidity, i.e.,
the impossibility of having more than one body at the same place at the same time. But
what is the origin of solidity? Again, we will be able to answer the question only in the
forthcoming, quantum part of our adventure, but we can already collect the first clues at
this point.
Solidity is due to electricity. Many experiments show that matter is constituted of
charged particles; indeed, matter can be moved and influenced by electromagnetic fields
in many ways. Over the years, material scientists have produced a long list of such effects,
all of which are based on the existence of charged constituents. Can you find or imagine
a new one? For example, can electric charge change the colour of objects?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Matter, levitation and electromagnetic effects

198

5 electromagnetic effects

TA B L E 17 (Continued) Selected matter properties related to electromagnetism.

Propert y

Example

Definition

Interactions with charges and currents


electrification
triboelectricity
barometer light
insulation
semiconductivity

graphite
ZnSb, PbTe, PbSe,
BiSeTe, Bi2 Te3 , etc.

spontaneous charging
charging through rubbing
gas discharge due to triboelectricity Ref. 175
no current flow below critical voltage drop
current flows only when material is impure
(doped)
current flows easily
current flows indefinitely
current flows easily
resistance of disordered solids

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Interactions with magnetic fields

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

heating due to current flow


cooling due to current flow, current flow
due to temperature difference, or due to
temperature gradients
CdS
sound generation by currents, and vice
versa
magnetoresistance
iron, metal multilayers resistance changes with applied magnetic
field Ref. 176
recombination
fire alarms
charge carriers combine to make neutral
atoms or molecules
annihilation
positron tomography particle and antiparticle, e.g. electron and
positron, disappear into photons
Penning effect
Ne, Ar
ionization through collision with
metastable atoms
Richardson effect, thermal BaO2 , W, Mo, used in emission of electrons from hot metals
emission
tv and electron
microscopes
skin effect
Cu
high current density on exterior of wire
pinch effect
InSb, plasmas
high current density on interior of wire
Josephson effect
Nb-Oxide-Nb
tunnel current flows through insulator
between two superconductors
SasakiShibuya effect
n-Ge, n-Si
anisotropy of conductivity due to applied
electric field
switchable magnetism
InAs:Mn
voltage switchable magnetization Ref. 177

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

conductivity
superconductivity
ionization
localization (weak,
Anderson)
resistivity, Joule effect
thermoelectric effects:
Peltier effect, Seebeck
effect, Thomson effect
acousto-electric effect

separating metals from


insulators
glass rubbed on cat fur
mercury slipping along
glass
air
diamond, silicon or
gallium arsenide
copper, metals
niobium
fire flames
disordered solids

electromagnetic effects and challenges

199

TA B L E 17 (Continued) Selected matter properties related to electromagnetism.

Propert y

Example

Definition

Hall effect

voltage perpendicular to current flow in


applied magnetic field

Zeeman effect

silicon; used for


magnetic field
measurements
Cd

PaschenBack effect

atomic gases

ferromagnetism

Fe, Ni, Co, Gd

paramagnetism

Fe, Al, Mg, Mn, Cr

diamagnetism

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014


free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

change of magnetization by tension or


pressure
acousto-magnetic effect
metal alloys, anti-theft excitation of mechanical oscillations
stickers
through magnetic field
spin valve effect
metal multilayers
electrical resistance depends on spin
direction of electrons with respect to
applied magnetic field
magneto-optical activity or flint glass
polarization angle is rotated with magnetic
Faraday effect or Faraday
field; different refraction index for right
rotation
and left circularly polarized light, as in
magneto-optic (MO) recording
magnetic circular
gases
different absorption for right- and
dichroism
left-circularly polarized light; essentially
the same as the previous one
Majorana effect
colloids
specific magneto-optic effect
photoelectromagnetic
InSb
current flow due to light irradiation of
effect
semiconductor in a magnetic field
inverse Faraday effect
GdFeCo
switch of magnetisation by femtosecond
laser pulse
Voigt effect
vapours
birefringence induced by applied magnetic
field
CottonMouton effect
liquids
birefringence induced by applied magnetic
field

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

water, Au, graphite,


NaCl
magnetostriction (and the CeB6 , CePd2 Al3 ,
related Joule effect, Villari TbDyFe
effect, Wiedemann effect,
Matteucci effect, Barret
effect and Nagaoka-Honds
effect)
magnetoelastic effect
Fe, Ni

change of emission frequency with


magnetic field
change of emission frequency in strong
magnetic fields
spontaneous magnetization; material
strongly attracted by magnetic fields
induced magnetization parallel to applied
field; attracted by magnetic fields
induced magnetization opposed to applied
field; repelled by magnetic fields
change of shape or volume by applied
magnetic field

200

5 electromagnetic effects

TA B L E 17 (Continued) Selected matter properties related to electromagnetism.

Propert y

Example

Definition

Hanle effect

Hg

change of polarization of fluorescence with


magnetic field
periodic change of resistance with applied
magnetic field
relation between temperature, applied
fields and electric current

Shubnikovde Haas effect Bi


thermomagnetic effects:
BiSb alloys
Ettinghausen effect,
RighiLeduc effect, Nernst
effect, magnetoSeebeck
effect
EttinghausenNernst effect Bi

CeF3

magnetocaloric effect

gadolinium, GdSiGe
alloys
semiconductors,
metals
semiconductors,
metals
most materials, used
for imaging in
medicine for structure
determination of
molecules
liquids, used in
change of viscosity with applied magnetic
advanced car
fields
suspensions
type 1 superconductors, expulsion of magnetic field from
used for levitation
superconductors

cyclotron resonance
magnetoacoustic effect
magnetic resonance

magnetorheologic effect

Meissner effect

Interactions with electric fields


all matter

ionization, field emission,


Schottky effect
paraelectricity

all matter, tv

dielectricity
ferroelectricity
piezoelectricity

BaTiO3

polarization changes with applied electric


field
charges are extracted at high fields

applied field leads to polarization in same


direction
water
in opposite direction
BaTiO3
spontaneous polarization below critical
temperature
the quartz lighter used polarization appears with tension, stress,
in the kitchen, human or pressure
bones

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polarizability

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

photonic Hall effect

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

appearance of electric field in materials


with temperature gradients in magnetic
fields
transverse light intensity depends on the
applied magnetic field Ref. 178
material cools when magnetic field is
switched off Ref. 179
selective absorption of radio waves in
magnetic fields
selective absorption of sound waves in
magnetic fields
selective absorption of radio waves in
magnetic fields

electromagnetic effects and challenges

201

TA B L E 17 (Continued) Selected matter properties related to electromagnetism.

Propert y

Example

Definition

electrostriction

platinum sponges in
acids
CsNO3 , tourmaline,
crystals with polar
axes; used for infrared
detection
many ionic liquids

shape change with applied voltage Ref. 180

pyroelectricity

electro-osmosis or
electrokinetic effect
electrowetting

field ionization

liquid moves under applied electric field


Ref. 181

salt solutions on gold

wetting of surface depends on applied


voltage
sulphuric acid
charge transport through liquid
watch displays
molecules turn with applied electric field
liquids (e.g. oil),
material in electric field rotates light
crystalline solids
polarization, i.e., produces birefringence
nematic liquid crystals electrically induced birefringence
hydrogen, mercury

field evaporation

energy-free transfer of electrons into


conduction band at high fields
evaporation under strong applied electric
fields

Interactions with light


absorption

coal, graphite

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transformation of light into heat or other


energy forms (which ones?)Challenge 205 s
blackness
coal, graphite
complete absorption in visible range
colour, metallic shine
ruby
absorption depending on light frequency
photostriction
PbLaZrTi
light induced piezoelectricity
photography
AgBr, AgI
light precipitates metallic silver
photoelectricity,
Cs
current flows into vacuum due to light
photoeffect
irradiation
internal photoelectric effect Si pn junctions, solar voltage generation and current flow due to
cells
light irradiation
photon drag effect
p-Ge
current induced by photon momentum
emissivity
all bodies
ability to emit light
transparency
glass, quartz, diamond low reflection, low absorption, low
scattering
reflectivity
metals
light bounces on surface

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Zener effect

helium near tungsten


tips in field ion
microscope
Si

colour change of emitted light in electric


field
ionization of gas atoms in strong electric
fields

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

electrolytic activity
liquid crystal effect
electro-optical activity:
Kerr effect, Pockels effect
Freederichsz effect,
SchadtHelfrichs effect
Stark effect

change of temperature produces charge


separation

202

5 electromagnetic effects

TA B L E 17 (Continued) Selected matter properties related to electromagnetism.

Propert y

Example

Definition

polarization

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics


copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014
free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

pulled polymer sheets light transmission depending on


polarization angle
optical activity
sugar dissolved in
rotation of polarization
water, quartz
birefringence
calcite,cornea
refraction index depends on polarization
direction, light beams are split into two
beams
dichroism
aminoacids, andalusite absorption depends on circular
polarization
optically induced
AgCl
optically induced birefringence and
anisotropy, Weigert effect
dichroism
second harmonic
LiNbO3 , KPO4
light partially transformed to double
generation
frequency
luminescence: general term GaAs, tv
cold light emission
for opposite of
incandescence
fluorescence
CaF2 , X-ray
light emission during and after light
production, light tubes, absorption or other energy input
cathode ray tubes,
television tubes
phosphorescence
TbCl3
light emission due to light, electrical or
chemical energy input, continuing long
after stimulation
electroluminescence
ZnS
emission of light due to alternating
electrical field
photoluminescence
ZnS : Cu,
light emission triggered by UV light, used
SrAlO4 : Eu, Dy,
in safety signs
hyamine
chemoluminescence
H2 O2 , phenyl oxalate cold light emission used in light sticks for
ester, dye
divers and fun
bioluminescence
glow-worm, deep sea cold light emission in animals
fish
triboluminescence
sugar
light emission during friction or crushing
thermoluminescence
quartz, feldspar
light emission during heating, used e.g. for
archaeological dating of pottery Ref. 182
bremsstrahlung
X-ray generation
radiation emission through fast
deceleration of electrons
Compton effect
momentum
change of wavelength of light, esp. X-rays
measurements
and gamma radiation, colliding with
matter

electromagnetic effects and challenges

203

TA B L E 17 (Continued) Selected matter properties related to electromagnetism.

Propert y

Example

erenkov effect

water, polymer particle light emission in a medium due to


detectors
particles, e.g. emitted by radioactive
processes, moving faster than the speed of
light in that medium
any material
light emission due to fast particles moving
from one medium to a second with
different refractive index
wolframates
colour change with applied electric field
gases, liquids
light changes direction
dust in gases
light changes direction
sky
light changes direction, sky is blue
molecular gases
scattered light changes frequency

transition radiation

beer, ruby, HeNe

emission of stimulated radiation

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014


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air in water
light emission during cavitation
does not exist; Challenge
206 s why?
switchable mirror
LaH
voltage controlled change from reflection
to transparency Ref. 183
radiometer effect
bi-coloured windmills irradiation turns mill (see page 111)
luminous pressure
idem
irradiation turns mill directly
solar sail effect
future satellites
motion due to solar wind
acousto-optic!effect
LiNbO3
diffraction of light by sound in transparent
materials
photorefractive materials LiNbO3 , GaAs, InP
light irradiation changes refractive index
Auger effect
Auger electron
electron emission due to atomic
spectroscopy
reorganization after ionization by X-rays
Bragg reflection
crystal structure
X-ray diffraction by atomic planes
determination
Mbauer effect
Fe, used for
recoil-free resonant absorption of gamma
spectroscopy
radiation
pair creation
Pb
transformation of a photon in a charged
particleantiparticle pair
photoconductivity
Se, CdS
change of resistivity with light irradiation
optoacoustic affect,
gases, solids
creation of sound due to absorption of
photoacoustic effect
pulsed light; used for imaging of animal
and human tissue
optogalvanic effect
plasmas
change of discharge current due to light
irradiation
optical nonlinear effects: parametric amplification, frequency mixing, saturable absorption, n-th
harmonic generation, optical Kerr effect, etc.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

electrochromicity
scattering
Mie scattering
Raleigh scattering
Raman effect or
SmekalRaman effect
laser activity,
superradiation
sonoluminescence
gravitoluminescence

Definition

204

5 electromagnetic effects

TA B L E 17 (Continued) Selected matter properties related to electromagnetism.

Propert y

Example

Definition

phase conjugated mirror


activity

gases

reflection of light with opposite phase

Material properties
solidity, impenetrability

floors, columns, ropes, at most one object per place at a given time
buckets

Interactions with vacuum


Casimir effect

I(T) = f T 4

25 k 4
15c 2 h3

or

I(T) = f T 4

with

= 56.7 nW/K4 m2 ,

(85)

where f is a material-, shape- and temperature-dependent factor, with a value between


zero and one, and is called the emissivity. The constant is called the StefanBoltzmann
black body radiation constant or black body radiation constant. A body whose emissivity
* Probably the best and surely the most entertaining introductory English language book on the topic is the
one by Neil Ashcroft & David Mermin, Solid State Physics, Holt Rinehart & Winston, 1976.

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All matter properties in the list can be influenced by electric or magnetic fields or
directly depend on them. This shows that the nature of all these material properties is
electromagnetic. In other words, charges and their interactions are an essential and fundamental part of the structure of objects. The table shows so many different electromagnetic properties that the motion of charges inside each material must be complex indeed.
Most effects are the topic of solid state physics,* fluid and plasma physics.
Solid state physics is by far the most important part of physics, when measured by the
impact it has on society. Almost all effects have applications in technical products, and
give employment to many people. Can you name a product or business application for
any randomly chosen effect from the table?
In our mountain ascent however, we look at only one example from the above list:
thermal radiation, the emission of light by hot bodies.
Earnshaws theorem about the impossibility of a stable equilibrium for charged particles at rest implies that the charges inside matter must be moving. For any charged particle in motion, Maxwells equations for the electromagnetic field show that it radiates
energy by emitting electromagnetic waves. In short, classical mechanics thus predicts
that matter must radiate electromagnetic energy.
Interestingly, everybody knows from experience that this is indeed the case. Hot bodies light up depending on their temperature; the working of light bulbs thus proves that
metals are made of charged particles. Incandescence, as it is called, requires charges. Actually, every body emits radiation, even at room temperature. This radiation is called
thermal radiation; at room temperature it lies in the infrared. Its intensity is rather weak
in everyday life; it is given by the general expression

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 184

attraction of uncharged, conducting bodies

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 207 e

metals

electromagnetic effects and challenges

Challenge 208 s
Ref. 185
Challenge 209 s

205

is given by the ideal case f = 1 is called a black body, because at room temperature such a
body also has an ideal absorption coefficient and thus appears black. (Can you see why?)
The heat radiation such a body emits is called black body radiation.
By the way, which object radiates more energy: a human body or an average piece of
the Sun of the same mass? Guess first!
Challenges and fun curiosities about electromagnetic effects

Challenge 210 s

Ref. 188
Challenge 212 ny

Researchers are trying to detect tooth decay with the help of electric currents, using the
observation that healthy teeth are bad conductors, in contrast to teeth with decay. How
would you make use of this effect in this case? (By the way, it might be that the totally
unrelated technique of imaging with terahertz waves could yield similar results.)

Human bone is piezoelectric: it produces electric signals when stressed. When we move

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copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 211 ny

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 186

Inside a conductor there is no electric field. This statement is often found. In fact the
truth is not that simple. First, a static field or a static charge on the metal surface of a
body does not influence fields and charges inside it. A closed metal surface thus forms a
shield against an electric field. Can you give an explanation? In fact, a tight metal layer
is not required to get the effect; a cage is sufficient. One speaks of a Faraday cage.
The detailed mechanism allows you to answer the following question: do Faraday
cages for gravity exist? Why?
For moving external fields or charges, the issue is more complex. Fields due to accelerated charges radiation fields decay exponentially through a shield. Fields due to
charges moving at constant speed are strongly reduced, but do not disappear. The reduction depends on the thickness and the resistivity of the metal enclosure used. For sheet
metal, the field suppression is very high; it is not necessarily high for metal sprayed plastic. Such a device will not necessarily survive a close lightning stroke.
In practice, there is no danger if lightning hits an aeroplane or a car, as long they are
made of metal. (There is one film on the internet of a car hit by lightning; the driver does
not even notice.) However, if your car is hit by lightning in dry weather, you should wait
a few minutes before getting out of it. Can you imagine why?
Faraday cages also work the other way round. (Slowly) changing electric fields that
are inside a Faraday cage are not felt outside. For this reason, radios, mobile phones and
computers are surrounded by boxes made of metal or metal-sprayed plastics. The metal
keeps the so-called electromagnetic smog to a minimum.
There are thus three reasons to surround electric appliances by a grounded shield:
to protect the appliance from outside fields, to protect people and other machines from
electromagnetic smog, and to protect people against the mains voltage accidentally being
fed into the box (for example, when the insulation fails). In high precision experiments,
these three functions can be realized by three separate cages.
For purely magnetic fields, the situation is more complex. It is quite difficult to shield
the inside of a machine from outside magnetic fields. How would you do it? In practice
one often uses layers of so-called mu-metal; can you guess what this material does?

206

5 electromagnetic effects

and grow, the electric signals are used by the body to reinforce the bones in the regions
that are in need. The piezoelectricity of the bones thus controls and guides their growth.
This connection is also used to make fractured bones heal more rapidly: by applying
pulsed magnetic fields to a broken bone, the healing is stimulated and accelerated. (Static
magnetic fields obviously do not work for this aim.) Also teeth are piezoelectric, and the
effect plays a role in their growth.

Challenge 213 e

In shops, one can buy piezoelectric devices similar to a gas lighter that are applied to
mosquito bites and are said to reduce itching and even swelling. (Some product names
are zanza click and skeeter click) Can this be true?

If the electric field is described as a sum of components of different frequencies, its socalled Fourier components, the amplitudes are given by
t) =
E(k,

1
E(x, t)eikx d3 x
(2)3 /2

(86)

and similarly for the magnetic field. It then turns out that a Lorentz invariant quantity

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Ref. 189

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

When solar plasma storms are seen on the Sun, astronomers first phone the electricity
company. They know that about 24 to 48 hours later, the charged particles ejected by the
storms will arrive on Earth, making the magnetic field on the surface fluctuate. Since
power grids often have closed loops of several thousands of kilometres, additional electric currents are induced, which can make transformers in the grid overheat and then
switch off. Other transformers then have to take over the additional power, which can
lead to their overheating, etc. On several occasions in the past, millions of people have
been left without electrical power due to solar storms. Today, the electricity companies
avoid the problems by disconnecting the various grid sections, by avoiding large loops,
by reducing the supply voltage to avoid saturation of the transformers and by disallowing
load transfer from failed circuits to others.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 214 s

A team of camera men in the middle of the Sahara were using battery-driven electrical
equipment to make sound recordings. Whenever the microphone cable was a few tens
of metres long, they also heard a 50 Hz power supply noise, even though the next power
supply was thousands of kilometres away. An investigation revealed that the high voltage
lines in Europe lose a considerable amount of power by irradiation; these 50 Hz waves are
reflected by the ionosphere around the Earth and thus can disturb recording in the middle of the desert. Can you estimate whether this observation implies that living directly
near a high voltage line is dangerous?

electromagnetic effects and challenges

207

N, describing the energy per circular frequency , can be defined:


N=
Challenge 215 s

|E(k, t)|2 + |B(k, t)|2 3


1

d k.
8
c|k|

(87)

Can you guess what N is physically? (Hint: think about quantum theory.)

Challenge 216 ny

Faraday discovered how to change magnetism into electricity, knowing that electricity
could be transformed into magnetism. (The issue is subtle. Faradays law is not the dual of
Ampres, as that would imply the use of magnetic monopoles; neither is it the reciprocal,
as that would imply the displacement current. But he was looking for a link and he found
a way to relate the two observations in a novel way, as it turned out.) Faraday also
discovered how to transform electricity into light and into chemistry. He then tried to
change gravitation into electricity. But he was not successful. Why not?

Challenge 217 s

At high altitudes above the Earth, gases are completely ionized; no atom is neutral. One
speaks of the ionosphere, as space is full of positive ions and free electrons. Even though
both charges appear in exactly the same number, a satellite moving through the ionosphere acquires a negative charge. Why? How does the charging stop?

Challenge 219 s

How can you give somebody an electric shock using a 4.5 V battery and some wire?

Ref. 190

Energy

1
1
1 q 2
2
= 0 Electric field dV = 0
4r 2 dr
2
2
2
4o r
d

q2 1
> 1.2 J .
8o d

(88)

On the other hand, the mass of an electron, usually given as 511 keV/c2 , corresponds
to an energy of only 82 fJ, ten million times less than the value just calculated. In other
words, classical electrodynamics has considerable difficulty describing electrons. In fact,

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Challenge 220 e

An old puzzle about electricity results from the equivalence of mass and energy. It is
known from experiments that the size d of electrons is surely smaller than 1022 m. This
means that the electric field surrounding it has an energy content E given by at least

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 218 s

A capacitor of capacity C is charged with a voltage U. The stored electrostatic energy is


E = CU 2 /2. The capacitor is then detached from the power supply and branched on to an
empty capacitor of the same capacity. After a while, the voltage obviously drops to U/2.
However, the stored energy now is C(U/2)2 , which is half the original value. Where did
the energy go?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

208

Ref. 191

5 electromagnetic effects

a consistent description of charged point particles within classical electrodynamics is


impossible. This topic receives only a rare but then often passionate interest nowadays,
because the puzzle is solved in a different way in the upcoming, quantum parts of our
mountain ascent.

Page 197

Even though the golden days of materials science are over, the various electromagnetic
properties of matter and their applications in devices do not seem to be completely explored yet. About once a year a new effect is discovered that merits inclusion in the list of
electromagnetic matter properties of Table 17. Among others, some newer semiconductor technologies will still have an impact on electronics, such as the recent introduction
of low cost light detecting integrated circuits built in CMOS (complementary metal oxide
silicon) technology.

Challenge 221 r

Challenge 222 s

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Ref. 192
Page 90

But maybe the biggest challenge imaginable in classical electrodynamics is to decode


the currents inside the brain. Will it be possible to read our thoughts with an apparatus
placed outside the head?
One could start with a simpler challenge: Would it be possible to distinguish the
thought yes from the thought no by measuring electrical or magnetic fields around
the head? In other words, is simple mind-reading possible? The answer is yes. This has
already been achieved. Even more, using brain imaging, it is already possible to distinguish among simple concepts that a person has in mind.
As we have seen above, partial mind-reading is also possible already for motionrelated tasks, including some video games.
In fact, it is now possible to use a cap with electrical contacts and use passwords that
you simply think about to secure computer systems. The advantage of such a password
is that it is hard to steal. (Is this system secure?)
The twenty-first century will surely bring many new results also for the mind reading
of cognitive tasks. The team first performing such a feat will become instantly famous.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

In many materials, left and right circularly polarized light is absorbed differently. The
effect, called circular dichroism, was discovered by Aim Cotton in 1896. Since circular dichroism appears in optically active chiral molecules, the measurement of circular
dichroism spectra is a simple and important method for the structure determination of
biological molecules.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

The building of light sources of high quality has been a challenge for many centuries
and remains one for the future. Light sources that are intense, tunable and with large
coherence length or sources that emit extreme wavelengths are central to many research
pursuits. As one example of many, the first X-ray lasers have recently been built; however, they are several hundred metres in size and use modified particle accelerators. The
constructionof compact X-ray lasers is still many years off if it is possible at all.

209
electromagnetic effects and challenges

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

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Chapter 6

SUMMARY AND LIMIT S OF


CL ASSICAL ELECTRODYNAMICS

Electric charges exert forces on other charges; for charges at rest, the force
falls off as the inverse square of the distance.* Equivalently, charges are surrounded by an electromagnetic field.
Electric charges are conserved.
Charges move more slowly than light.

More precisely, the motion of the electric field E and of the magnetic field B is described
by the Lagrangian density

1 2
L = 0 E2
B .
(89)
2
20
* Quantum theory will show that this principle, Coulombs law, can be rephrased as: electric charges at rest
emit virtual photons with a constant average rate.

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The electromagnetic field is a physical observable, as shown e.g. by compass needles.


The electromagnetic field sources are the (moving) charges, as shown by amber, lodestone or mobile phones.
The electromagnetic field changes the motion of electrically charged objects via the
Lorentz expression as, for example, shown by electric motors.
The electromagnetic field can exist in empty space and moves in it as a wave, as shown,
for example, by the stars.
The electromagnetic field behaves like a continuous quantity and is described by
Maxwells evolution equations, as shown, for example, by mobile phones and electric
toothbrushes.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 39

From these three principles we can deduce all of electrodynamics. Electrodynamics is


thus built on the definition of charge, the conservation of charge, and the invariance of
the speed of light. In particular, we can deduce the following basic statements:

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

ll of classical electrodynamics can be summarized in three principles. Every


dventurer should know them, because they will help us later on, when we
pproach the top of Motion Mountain. We will discover that we can arrive at
the top only if we express things as simply as possible. The three principles of classical
electrodynamics are:

summary and limits

Page 197

211

Strong fields and gravitation

Page 36
Challenge 223 s
Vol. II, page 101
Challenge 224 ny
Ref. 193

Vol. I, page 342


Vol. I, page 343

Classical electrodynamics fails to describe nature correctly also for a second reason,
which has already been mentioned a number of times: electric charges are discrete. Electric charges do not vary continuously, but change in fixed steps. Not only does nature
show a smallest value of entropy as we found in our exploration of heat, and smallest
amounts of matter; nature also shows a smallest charge. Electric charge values are quantized.
In metals, the quantization of charge is noticeable in the flow of electrons. In elec-

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Charges are discrete

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Page 26

First of all, classical electrodynamics fails in regions with strong fields. When electromagnetic fields are extremely strong, their energy density will curve space-time. Classical
electrodynamics, which assumes flat space-time, is not valid in such situations.
The failure of classical electrodynamics is most evident in the most extreme case of all:
when the fields are extremely strong, they will lead to the formation of black holes. The
existence of black holes, together with the discreteness of charge, imply maximum electric and magnetic field values. These upper limits were mentioned in Table 3, which lists
various electric field values found in nature, and in Table 8, which lists possible magnetic
field values. Can you deduce the values of these so-called Planck fields?
The curvature of space and electrodynamics interact in many ways. For example, the
maximum force in nature limits the maximum charge that a black hole can carry. Can
you find the relation? As another example, it seems that magnetic fields effectively increase the stiffness of empty space, i.e., they increase the difficulty to bend empty space.
Not all interactions between gravity and electrodynamics have been studied up to now;
more examples should appear in the future.
In summary, classical electrodynamics does not work for extremely high field values,
when gravitation plays a role.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Like for any motion described by a Lagrangian, the motion of the field is reversible, continuous, conserved and deterministic. However, there is quite some fun in the offing;
even though this description is correct in everyday life, during the rest of our mountain
ascent we will find that the last basic statement must be wrong: fields do not always follow
Maxwells equations. A simple example shows this.
At a temperature of zero kelvin, when matter does not radiate thermally, we have the
paradoxical situation that the charges inside matter cannot be moving, since no emitted
radiation is observed, but they cannot be at rest either, due to Earnshaws theorem. In
short, the simple existence of matter with its charged constituents shows that classical
electrodynamics is wrong.
In fact, the overview of the numerous material properties and electromagnetic effects
given in Table 17 makes the same point even more strongly; classical electrodynamics
can describe many of the effects listed, but it cannot explain the origin of any of them.
Even though few of the effects will be studied in our walk they are not essential for our
adventure the general concepts necessary for their description will be the topic of the
upcoming part of this mountain ascent, that on quantum theory.
In fact, there are two domains where classical electrodynamics fails.

212

6 cl assical electrodynamics

trolytes, i.e. electrically conducting liquids, the quantization of charge appears in the flow
of charged atoms, usually called ions. All batteries have electrolytes inside; also water is
an electrolyte, though a poorly conducting one. In plasmas, like fire or fluorescent lamps,
both ions and electrons move and show the discreteness of charge. Also in all known
types of particle radiation from the electron beams inside cathode ray tubes in televisions, the channel rays formed in special low-pressure glass tubes, the cosmic radiation
hitting us all the time, up to the omnipresent radioactivity charges are quantized.
In all known experiments, the same smallest value e for electric charge has been found.
The result is
e = 0.160 217 656 5(35) aC ,
(90)

Challenge 225 s

In vacuum, such as inside a colour television, charged particles accelerated by a voltage


of 30 kV move with a third of the speed of light. In modern particle accelerators charges
move so rapidly that their speed is indistinguishable from that of light for all practical
purposes.
Inside a metal, electric signals move with speeds of the order of the speed of light. The
precise value depends on the capacity and impedance of the cable and is usually in the

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How fast do charges move?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Vol. IV, page 161

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Page 25

around a sixth of an attocoulomb. All observed electric charges in nature are multiples
of this so-called elementary charge.
In short, like all flows in nature, also the flow of electricity is due to a flow of discrete
particles. In fact, the nature of the particles differs from situation to situation: they may
be electrons, ions, muons and many kind of other particles. However, the charge steps
are always exactly the same. In fact, at this point of our adventure, the equality of the elementary charge for all matter particles is unexplained. We will only discover the reason
only at the very end of our adventure.
Above all, a smallest charge change has a simple implication: classical electrodynamics
is wrong. A smallest charge implies that no infinitely small test charges exist. But such
infinitely small test charges are necessary to define electric and magnetic fields. For a finite
test charge, the disturbance of the field introduced by the test charge itself makes a precise
field measurement and thus a precise field definition impossible. As a consequence,
the values of electric and magnetic field measured with finite test charges are always
somewhat fuzzy. This fuzziness is most apparent for low field values. For example, for
low intensities of light, experiments detect photons, discrete light particles. All low light
intensities are time-averages of low photon numbers; they are not continuous fields.
The lower limit on charge magnitude also implies that there is no fully correct way
of defining an instantaneous electric current in classical electrodynamics. Indeed, the
position and the momentum of a charge are always somewhat fuzzy, as we will find out.
In summary, Maxwells evolution equations are only approximate. Classical electromagnetism does not work for extremely low field values, when quantum effects play a
role, and does not work for extremely high field values, when gravitation plays a role.
These cases will be explored in the remaining legs of our adventure, those on quantum
theory and those on unification. Only some effects of the discreteness of charge can be
treated in classical physics. A few instructive examples follow.

summary and limits

213

range 0.3c to 0.5c. This high speed is due to the ability of metals to easily take in arriving
charges and to let others depart. The ability for rapid reaction is due to the high mobility
of the charges inside metals, which in turn is due to the small mass and size of these
charges, the electrons.
The high signal speed in metals appears to contradict another determination. The drift
speed of the electrons in a metal wire, i.e., the average speed of the charges, obviously
obeys
I
,
(91)
=
Ane

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Inside atoms, electrons behave even more strangely. We tend to imagine that they orbit
the nucleus (as we will see later) at a rather high speed, as the orbital radius is so small.
However, it turns out that in most atoms many electrons do not orbit the nucleus at all:
many electrons have no orbital angular momentum around the nucleus. How can this
be?
Worse, some electrons do have orbital momentum. But is these electrons were orbiting the atomic nucleus like planets orbit the Sun, they would move under constant
acceleration. Thus they would emit electromagnetic radiation until they would fall into
the nucleus. But this is not the case: atoms are stable! How can this be?
And why are all atoms of the same size? Atom size should depend on the angular
momentum of the electrons inside it. But what determines the orbital momentum of
electrons around the nucleus?
We will discover that there is a smallest angular momentum in nature that fixes the
size of atoms. And we will discover that moving electrons, in contrast to everyday objects,
are not described by trajectories in space, thus allowing atoms to be stable. The strange

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

What happens inside atoms?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 226 s

where I is the current, A the cross-section of the wire, e the charge of a single electron and
n the number density of electrons. The electron density in copper is 8.5 1028 m3 . Using
a typical current of 0.5 A and a typical cross-section of a square millimetre, we get a drift
speed of 0.37 m/s. In other words, electrons move a thousand times slower than ketchup
inside its bottle. Worse, if a room lamp used direct current instead of alternate current,
the electrons would take several days to get from the switch to the bulb! Nevertheless,
the lamp goes on or off almost immediately after the switch is activated. Similarly, the
electrons from an email transported with direct current would arrive much later than a
paper letter sent at the same time; nevertheless, the email arrives quickly. Are you able
to explain the apparent contradiction between drift velocity and signal velocity?
Inside liquids, charges move with a different speed from that inside metals, and their
charge to mass ratio is also different. We all know this from direct experience. Our nerves
work by using electric signals and take (only) a few milliseconds to respond to a stimulus,
even though they are metres long. A similar speed is observed inside semiconductors
and inside batteries. In all these systems, moving charge is transported by ions; they are
charged atoms. Ions, like atoms, are large and composed entities, in contrast to the tiny
electrons. In other matter systems, charges move both as electrons and as ions. Examples
are neon lamps, fire, plasmas and the Sun.

214

Vol. IV, page 171

6 cl assical electrodynamics

story of atoms and their structure will be told in the quantum legs of our mountain ascent.
Challenges and curiosities about charge discreteness

Challenge 227 s

How would you show experimentally that electrical charge comes in smallest chunks?

Challenge 228 ny

The discreteness of charge implies that one can estimate the size of atoms by observing
galvanic deposition. How?

Vol. V, page 153


Ref. 194

Challenge 230 s

What would be the potential of the Earth in volt if we could take away all the electrons
of a drop of water?

E
2m
E
=
= 2 ,
j
en e n

(92)

* Paul Karl Ludwig Drude (18631906), German physicist. A result of his electron gas model of metals was
the prediction, roughly correct, that the ratio between the thermal conductivity and the electric conductivity
at a given temperature should be the same for all metals. Drude also introduced c as the symbol for the speed
of light.

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with n being the electron number density. The right side does not depend on E any more;
it is a constant. Drude had thus explained Ohms law U = RI (or E = j ) from material properties, by assuming that resistance is due to moving electrons that continuously collide and speed up again. Inserting numbers for copper (n = 8.5 1028 /m3 and
= 0.16 107 m), we get a time = 51 ps. This time is so short that the switch-on
process can usually be neglected.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

When a voltage is applied to a resistor, how long does it take until the end value of the current, given by Ohms law, is reached? The first to answer this question was Paul Drude.*
in the years around 1900. He reasoned that when the current is switched on, the speed
of an electron increases as = (eE/m)t, where E is the electrical field, e the charge and m
the mass of the electron. Drudes model assumes that the increase of electron speed stops
when the electron hits an atom, loses its energy and begins to be accelerated again. Drude
deduced that the average time up to the collision is related to the specific resistance by

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 229 ny

Cosmic radiation consists of charged particles hitting the Earth. (We will discuss this
in more detail later.) Astrophysicists explain that these particles are accelerated by the
magnetic fields around the Galaxy. However, the expression of the Lorentz acceleration
shows that magnetic fields can only change the direction of the velocity of a charge, not
its magnitude. How can nature get acceleration nevertheless?

summary and limits

Challenge 231 d

215

Does it make sense to write Maxwells equations in vacuum? Both electrical and magnetic
fields require charges in order to be measured. But in vacuum there are no charges at all.
And fields are defined by using infinitesimally small test charges. But, as we mentioned
already, infinitesimally small charges do not exist. In fact, only quantum theory solves
this issue. Are you able to imagine how?

We have seen that in many cases, charge discreteness is not in contradiction with classical
electrodynamics. One system that makes use of discrete charge but can nevertheless be
described with classical electrodynamics merits a separate discussion: our brain.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics


copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014
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Chapter 7

THE STORY OF THE BR AIN

Challenge 232 e

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* Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. This and other quotes of Ludwig Wittgenstein
are from the equally short and famous Tractatus logico-philosophicus, written in 1918, first published in 1921;
it has now been translated into many other languages.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 233 e

n our quest for increased precision in the description of all motion around us, it
s time to take a break, sit down and look back. In our walk so far, which has led us to
nvestigate mechanics, general relativity and electrodynamics, we used several concepts without defining them. Examples are information, memory, measurement, set,
number, infinity, existence, universe and explanation. Each of these is a common and
important term. In this intermezzo, we take a look at these concepts and try to give some
simple, but sufficiently precise definitions, keeping them as provocative and entertaining
as possible. For example, can you explain to your parents what a concept is?
The reason for studying the definitions of concepts is simple. We need the clarifications in order to get to the top of Motion Mountain, i.e., to the full description of motion. In the past, many have lost their way because of lack of clear concepts. In order to
avoid these difficulties, physics has a special guiding role. All sciences share one result:
every type of change observed in nature is a form of motion. In this sense, but in this sense
only, physics, focusing on motion itself, forms the basis for all the other sciences. In other
words, the search for the famed theory of everything is an arrogant expression for the
search for a final theory of motion. Even though the knowledge of motion is basic, its precise description does not imply a description of everything: just try to solve a marriage
problem using the Schrdinger equation to note the difference.
Given the basic importance of motion, it is necessary that in physics all statements on
observations be as precise as possible. For this reason, many thinkers have investigated
physical statements with particular care, using all criteria imaginable. Physics is precise
prattle by curious people about moving things. What does precision mean? The meaning
appears once we ask: which abilities does such prattle require? You might want to fill in
the list yourself before reading on.
The abilities necessary for talking are a topic of research even today. The way that
the human species acquired the ability to chat about motion is studied by evolutionary
biologists. Child psychologists study how the ability develops in a single human being.
Physiologists, neurologists and computer scientists are concerned with the way the brain

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Alles was berhaupt gedacht werden kann,


kann klar gedacht werden.*
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 4.116

the story of the brain

217

F I G U R E 147 Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951).

and the senses make this possible; linguists focus on the properties of the language we
use, while logicians, mathematicians and philosophers of science study the general properties of statements about nature. All these fields investigate tools that are essential for
the development of physics, the understanding of motion and the specification of the
undefined concepts listed above. The fields structure the following exploration.

Ref. 195
Vol. II, page 218

Challenge 234 e

Children, laws and physics

Ref. 197

Ref. 198

During childhood, everybody is a physicist. When we follow our own memories backwards in time as far as we can, we reach a certain stage, situated before birth, which forms

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Physicists also have a shared reality. Other than


that, there isnt really a lot of difference between
being a physicist and being a schizophrenic.
Richard Bandler

The evolution of the human species is the result of a long story that has been told in
many excellent books. A summarizing table on the history of the universe was given in
the exploration of general relativity. The almost incredible chain of events that has lead to
ones own existence includes the formation of atoms, of the galaxies, the stars, the planets,
the Moon, the atmosphere, the oceans, the first cells, the water animals, the land animals,
the mammals, the hominids, the humans, the ancestors, the family and finally, oneself.
The way the atoms we are made of moved during this sequence, being blown through
space, being collected on Earth, becoming organized to form organic matter and then
people, is one of the most awe-inspiring examples of motion. Remembering and meditating about this fantastic sequence of motion every now and then can be an enriching
experience.
In particular, without biological evolution, we would not be able to talk about motion
at all; only moving bodies can study moving bodies. And without a brain, we would not
be able to think or talk. Without evolution, we would have no muscles, no senses, no
nerves and no brains. Evolution was also the fount of childhood and curiosity. In this
chapter we will discover that most concepts of classical physics are already introduced
by every little child, in the experiences it has while growing up.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 196

A hen is only an eggs way of making another


egg.
Samuel Butler, Life and Habit.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Evolution

218

Vol. I, page 27

Challenge 236 e

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* The differences in their usage can be deduced from their linguistic origins. World is derived from old
Germanic wer person and ald old and originally means lifetime. Universe is from the Latin, and
designates the one unum which one sees turning vertere, and refers to the starred sky at night which
turns around the polar star. Nature comes also from the Latin, and means what is born. Cosmos is from
Greek and originally means order.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Page 277

the starting point of human experience. In that magic moment, we sensed somehow that
apart from ourselves, there is something else. The first observation we make about the
world, during the time in the womb, is thus the recognition that we can distinguish two
parts: ourselves and the rest of the world. This distinction is an example perhaps the
first of a large number of laws of nature that we stumble upon in our lifetime. Being a physicist started back then. By discovering more and more distinctions we bring
structure in the chaos of experience. We quickly find out that the world is made of related parts, such as mama, papa, milk, earth, toys, etc. We divide the parts in objects and
images.
Later, when we learn to speak, we enjoy using more difficult words and we call the
surroundings the environment. Depending on the context, we call the whole formed by
oneself and the environment together the (physical) world, the (physical) universe, nature, or the cosmos. These concepts are not distinguished from each other in this walk;*
they are all taken to designate the sum of all parts and their relations. They are simply
taken here to designate the whole.
The discovery of the first distinction in nature starts a chain of similar discoveries that
continue throughout our life. We extract the numerous distinctions that are possible in
the environment, in our own body and in the various types of interactions between them.
The ability to distinguish is the central ability that allows us to change our view from that
of the world as chaos, i.e., as a big mess, to that of the world as a system, i.e., a structured
set, in which parts are related in specific ways. (If you like precision, you may ponder
whether the two choices of chaos and system are the only possible ones.)
In particular, the observation of the differences between oneself and the environment
goes hand in hand with the recognition that not only are we not independent of the
environment, but we are firmly tied to it in various inescapable ways: we can fall, get
hurt, feel warm, cold, etc. Such relations are called interactions. Interactions express the
observation that even though the parts of nature can be distinguished, they cannot be
isolated. In other words, interactions describe the difference between the whole and the
sum of its parts. No part can be defined without its relation to its environment. (Do you
agree?)
Interactions are not arbitrary; just take touch, smell or sight as examples. They differ
in reach, strength and consequences. We call the characteristic aspects of interactions
patterns of nature, or properties of nature, or rules of nature or, equivalently, with their
historical but unfortunate name, laws of nature. The term law stresses their general validity; unfortunately, it also implies design, aim, coercion and punishment for infringement. However, no design, aim or coercion is implied in the properties of nature, nor is
infringement possible. The ambiguous term law of nature was made popular by Ren
Descartes (15961650) and has been adopted enthusiastically because it gave weight to
the laws of the state which were far from perfect at that time and to those of other
organizations which rarely are. The expression is an anthropomorphism coined by an
authoritarian world view, suggesting that nature is governed. We will therefore use the

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 235 s

7 the story of the brain

the story of the brain

Vol. VI, page 383

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* A child that is unable to make this distinction among perceptions and who is thus unable to lie almost
surely develops or already suffers from autism, as recent psychological research has shown.
** An overview of the origin of developmental psychology is given by J. H. Flavell, The Developmental
Psychology of Jean Piaget, 1963. This work summarizes the observations by the French speaking Swiss Jean
Piaget (18961980), the central figure in the field. He was one of the first researchers to look at child development in the same way that a physicist looks at nature: carefully observing, taking notes, making experiments, extracting hypotheses, testing them, deducing theories. His astonishingly numerous publications,
based on his extensive observations, cover almost all stages of child development. His central contribution
is the detailed description of the stages of development of the cognitive abilities of humans. He showed that
all cognitive abilities of children, the formation of basic concepts, their way of thinking, their ability to talk,
etc., result from the continuous interaction between the child and the environment.
In particular, Piaget described the way in which children first learn that they are different from the external environment, and how they then learn about the physical properties of the world. Of his many books
related to physical concepts, two especially related to the topic of this walk are J. Piaget, Les notions de
mouvement et de vitesse chez lenfant, Presses Universitaires de France, 1972 and Le developpement de la
notion de temps chez lenfant, Presses Universitaires de France, 1981, this last book being born from a suggestion by Albert Einstein. These texts should be part of the reading of every physicist and science philosopher
interested in these questions.
Piaget also describes how in children the mathematical and verbal intelligence derives from sensomotorial, practical intelligence, which itself stems from habits and acquired associations to construct new concepts. Practical intelligence requires the system of reflexes provided by the anatomical and morphological

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 199

term as rarely as possible in our walk and it will, if we do, be always between ironical
parentheses. Nature cannot be forced in any way. The laws of nature are not obligations
for nature or its parts, they are obligations only for physicists and all other people: the
patterns of nature oblige us to use certain descriptions and to discard others. Whenever
one says that laws govern nature one is talking nonsense (or asking for money); the
correct expression is rules describe nature.
During childhood we learn to distinguish between interactions with the environment
(or perceptions): some are shared with others and called observations, others are uniquely
personal and are called sensations.* A still stricter criterion of sharedness is used to divide the world into reality and imagination (or dreams). Our walk will show that this
distinction is not essential, provided that we stay faithful to the quest for ever increasing
precision: we will find that the description of motion that we are looking for does not
depend on whether the world is real or imagined, personal or public.
Humans enjoy their ability to distinguish parts, which in other contexts they also call
details, aspects or entities, and enjoy their ability to associate them or to observe the relations between them. Humans call this activity classification. Colours, shapes, objects,
mother, places, people and ideas are some of the entities that humans discover first.
Our anatomy provides a handy tool to make efficient use of these discoveries: memory.
It stores a large amount of input that is called experience afterwards. Memory is a tool
used by both young and old children to organize their world and to achieve a certain
security in the chaos of life.
Memorized classifications are called concepts. Jean Piaget was the first researcher to
describe the influence of the environment on the concepts that every child forms. Step by
step, children learn that objects are localized in space, that space has three dimensions,
that objects fall, that collisions produce noise, etc. In particular, Piaget showed that space
and time are not a priori concepts, but result from the interactions of every child with its
environment.**

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 200

219

220

Ref. 202

7 the story of the brain

Around the time that a child goes to school, it starts to understand the idea of permanence of substances, e.g. liquids, and the concept of contrary. Only at that stage does
its subjective experience becomes objective, with abstract comprehension. Still later, the
childs description of the world stops to be animistic: before this step, the Sun, a brook
or a cloud are alive. In short, only after puberty does a human become ready for physics.
Even though everyone has been a physicist in their youth, most people remain classical
physicists. In the present adventure we go much further, by using all the possibilities of
a toy with which nature provides us: the brain.

Polymer electronics

structure of our organism. Thus his work shows in detail that our faculty for mathematical description of
the world is based, albeit indirectly, on the physical interaction of our organism with the world.
Some of his opinions on the importance of language in development are now being revised, notably
through the rediscovery of the work of Lev Vigotsky, who argues that all higher mental abilities, emotions,
recollective memory, rational thought, voluntary attention and self-awareness, are not innate, but learned.
This learning takes place through language and culture, and in particular through the process of talking to
oneself.
At www.piaget.org you can find the website maintained by the Jean Piaget Society.
* In the electric signals generated by the brain one distiguishes, irregular signals during data processing, beta
waves, mainly during attention, with a frequency between 14 and 30 Hz, alpha waves, during relaxation, with
a frequency between 8 and 13 Hz, theta waves, during early sleep and during rapid eye movement (REM)
sleep, with a frequency between 3 and 7 Hz, and delta waves, during deep sleep, with a frequency between
0.5 and 2 Hz.

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Ref. 201

The brain is electrical. This was proven in 1924, when the neurologist Hans Berger (b. 1873
Neuses, d. 1941 Jena) recorded and named the first electroencephalogram. A modern electroencephalogram is shown in Figure 150.* In more detail, the brain is a flexible, polymerbased, metal-free, short-lived, sensitive, unreliable and electronic device. Incidentally, all
these properties are shared by all types of polymer electronics, whether alive or not. Reliability is the main reason that commercial electronics is usually silicon-based instead.
The polymer electronics that forms the brain is organized like a computer. Some details are shown in Table 18, Figure 148 and Figure 149. Though the functional blocks of a
brain and of a computer are astonishingly similar, the specific mechanisms they use are
usually completely different.
The brain consists of many parts dedicated to specific tasks and of many general parts.
The division is almost fiftyfifty. Also the computing power in a modern computer is
divided in this way; for example, graphics cards are often as powerful as the central processing unit.
In a generation or two, this section could be entitled how to build a brain. Unfortunately, there is not enough knowledge yet to realize this aim. Maybe you can help in this
pursuit?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 204

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 203

Experience is the name everyone gives to their


mistakes.
Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermeres Fan.

the story of the brain

221

TA B L E 18 Some aspects of the human brain.

Aspect
Hardware
Ultrashort term memory
Hippocampus
Amygdala

Computer
e q u i va l e n t

5 to 9 concepts
novelty detector, spatial
memory, learning
emotions, learning

cache
RAM and Flash
memory
priority scheduler of
operating system
priority scheduler of
operating system
sleep controller
hard disk and
processor
power supply,
structure
hard disk scratching

Ventral striatum, dopamine


and opioid provider
Suprachiasmatic nucleus
Neurons in cortex

rewards system

Glial cells in brain

about as many as neurons

Neuron number decay

women: e3.050.00145age/a 109 ,


men: e3.20.00145age/a 109
4 109 /s

Lifetime
Size
Software and processing
Learning

Deep sleep and learning storage


REM (rapid eye movement, or
dream) sleep

104
c. 2 1014
c. 2 106
c. 2 3000
c. 0.5 106

memory cells
camera wire
microphone line
sensor interfaces

c. 100 MB/s

input bandwidth

c. 1.5 106

actuator interfaces

c. 50 MB/s

output bandwidth

10 PFlop

several dozens of
supercomputers

1.230 kg; varies between 0.7


and 2.0 kg
1600 to 2200 kJ/d or 18 to 25 W
(with 750 ml/min blood
supply)
130 years
0.14 m 0.17 m0.09 m

1 to 5000 kg

changing synapse strength


through long-term
potentiation
structured writing from
hippocampus to cortex
offline processing

20 W to 20 kW

often only 2 years


from a few cm3 to
1 m3
activate, classify,
store
clean-up and
back-up to hard disk
data compression in
batch process

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Power consumption (average)

internal bus speed

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Pulses exchanged between both


brain halves
Synapses per neuron
Total synapse connections
Input pathways from the eye
Input pathways from the ear
Input pathways from skin,
mouth, and nose
Input signal capacity (total, 300
pulses/s per pathway)
Output pathways (muscles,
organs)
Output signal capacity (total,
300 pulses/s per pathway)
Non-serious probably too low
estimate of the processing
capacity
Typical mass (Einsteins brain)

day-night control
women c. 19109 , men c. 22109

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

D eta i l s

222

7 the story of the brain

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Why a brain?
Ref. 205

Ref. 207

The brain exists to control the motion of an organism. The more complex the motions of
an organism are, the larger its brain is. The brain together with some parts of the central
nervous system controls motion by processing the input provided by the various senses
and sending the results of the processing to the various muscles in the body.
Numerous observations show that sense input is processed, i.e., classified, stored and
retrieved in the brain. Notably, lesions of the brain can lead to the loss of part or all of
these functions. Among the important consequences of these basic abilities of the brain
are thought and language. All brain abilities result from the construction, i.e., from the
hardware of the brain.
* Thinking is already sculpture. Joseph Beuys (19201986).

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Ref. 206

Denken ist bereits Plastik.*


Joseph Beuys, sculptor.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 148 Sections and side view of the human brain, all in false colours (images WikiCommons).

the story of the brain

223

consciousness

Brain

priority scheduler
prediction calculator
motion control

Sensorspecific
hardware

Sensorspecific
hardware

Sensor and
signal generator

feedback

feedback

feedback

Actuatorspecific
hardware

Actuatorspecific
hardware
Actuator e.g. muscle or
chemical factory

F I G U R E 149 The general structure of the nervous system, with some typical feedback loops it contains

and an example of its sensor-specic hardware.

Ref. 209

Ref. 210

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Systems with the ability to deduce classifications from the input they receive are called
classifiers, and are said to be able to learn. Our brain shares this property with many complex systems; the brain of many animals, but also certain computer algorithms, such as
the so-called neural networks, are examples of classifiers. Classifiers are studied in several fields, from biology to neurology, mathematics and computer science. All classifiers
have the double ability to discriminate and to associate; and both abilities are fundamental to thinking.
Machine classifiers have a lot in common with the brain. As an example, following
an important recent hypothesis in evolutionary biology, the necessity to cool the brain
in an effective way is responsible for the upright, bipedal walk of humans. The brain,
which uses around a quarter of all energy burned in the human body, needs a powerful
cooling system to work well. In this, brains resemble modern computers, which usually
have powerful fans or even water cooling systems built into them. It turns out that the
human species has the most powerful cooling system of all mammals. An upright posture allowed the air to cool the body most effectively in the tropical environment where
humans evolved. For even better cooling, humans have also no body hair, except on their
head, where it protects the brain from direct heating by the Sun. The upright posture in
turn allowed humans to take breath independently of their steps, a feat that many animals
cannot perform. This ability increased the cooling again, and in turn allowed humans to
develop speech. Speech in turn developed the brain further.
All classifiers are built from smallest classifying units, sometimes large numbers of
them. Usually, the smallest units can classify input into only two different groups. The

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 208

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Sensorspecific
hardware

Actuatorspecific
hardware

224

7 the story of the brain

Ref. 211

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Vol. V, page 153

larger the number of these units, often called neurons by analogy to the brain, the more
sophisticated classifications can be produced by the classifier. Classifiers thus work by applying more or less sophisticated combinations of same and different. The distinction
by a child of red and blue objects is such a classification; the distinction of compact and
non-compact gauge symmetry groups in quantum theory is a more elaborate classification, but relies on the same fundamental ability.
In all classifiers, the smallest classifying units interact with each other. Often these
interactions are channelled via connections, and the set is then called a network. In these
connections, signals are exchanged, via moving objects, such as electrons or photons.
Thus we arrive at the conclusion that the ability of the brain to classify the physical world,
for example to distinguish moving objects interacting with each other, is a consequence
of the fact that it itself consists of moving objects interacting with each other. Without
a powerful classifier, humans would not have become such a successful animal species.
And only the motion inside our brain allows us to talk about motion in general.
Numerous researchers are identifying the parts of the brain used when different intellectual tasks are performed. Such experiments are possible using magnetic resonance
imaging and similar imaging techniques. Other researchers are studying how thought
processes can be modelled from the brain structure. Modern neurology is still making
regular progress. In particular, neurologists have destroyed the belief that thinking is

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

measured voltages are around 0.1 mV ( Wikimedia).

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 150 A modern electroencephalogram, taken at a number of positions at the head. The

the story of the brain

Challenge 237 s

225

more than a physical process. This false belief results from various personal fears, as you
might want to test by introspection. The fears and the belief will disappear as time goes
by. How would you argue that thought is just a physical process?
Evolution developed the brain, with all its capabilities, as a tool that helps every person
to find her way through the challenges that life poses. The human brain is so large because
of two reasons: the sensory input is vast, and the processing is complex. More concretely,
the brain is so large in order to process what we see. The amount of information provided
by the eyes is indeed huge.
What is information?

These thoughts did not come in any verbal


formulation. I rarely think in words at all. A
thought comes, and I may try to express it in
words afterward.
Albert Einstein

Ref. 212

Amount

Words spoken on an average day by a man


Words spoken on an average day by a woman
Bits processed by the ears
Light sensitive cells per retina (120 million rods and 6 million cones)
Bits processed by the eyes
Words spoken during a lifetime (2/3 time awake, 30 words per minute)
Words heard and read during a lifetime
Letters (base pairs) in haploid human DNA
Pulses exchanged between both brain halves every second

c. 5000
c. 7000
1 to 10 Mbit/s
126 106
1 to 10 Gbit/s
3 108
109
3 109
4 109

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K i n d o f i n f o r m at i o n

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

TA B L E 19 Some measures of information.

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Challenge 238 s

We started our adventure by stating that studying physics means to talk about motion.
To talk is to transmit information. Can information be measured? Can we measure the
progress of physics in this way? Is the universe made of information?
Information is the result of classification. A classification is the answer to one or to
several yesno questions. Such yesno questions are the simplest classifications possible;
they provide the basic units of classification, from which all others can be built. The simplest way to measure information is therefore to count the implied yesno questions, the
number of bits, leading to it. Some values are given in Table 19.
Are you able to say how many bits are necessary to define the place where you live?
Obviously, the number of bits depends on the set of questions with which we start; that
could be the names of all streets in a city, the set of all coordinates on the surface of the
Earth, the names of all galaxies in the universe, the set of all letter combinations in the
address. What is the most efficient method you can think of? A variation of the combination method is used in computers. For example, the story of the present adventure
required about five thousand million bits of information. But since the amount of information in a story depends on the set of questions with which we start, it is impossible to
define a precise measure for information in this way.

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7 the story of the brain

TA B L E 19 (Continued) Some measures of information.

Bits in a compact disc


Neurons in the human brain
Printed words available in (different) books around the world (c. 100 106
books consisting of 50 000 words)
Memory bits in the human brain
Image pixels seen in a lifetime (3 109 s (1/15 ms) 2/3 (awake) 106 (nerves
to the brain) Ref. 237
Bits of information processed in a lifetime (the above times 32)

6.1 109
1010 to 1011
c. 5 1012
> 1016
1017
1019

The only way to measure information precisely is to take the largest possible set of
questions that can be asked about a system, and to compare it with what is known about
the system. In this case, the amount of unknown information is called entropy, a concept
that we have already encountered. With this concept you should able to deduce yourself
whether it is really possible to measure the advance of physics.
Since classification or categorization is an activity of the brain and other, similar classifiers, information as defined here is a concept that applies to the result of activities by
people and by other classifiers. In short, information is produced when talking about the
universe.
Information is the result of classification. This implies that the universe itself is not the
same as information. There is a growing number of publications based on the opposite
of this view; however, this is a conceptual short circuit. Any transmission of information
implies an interaction; physically speaking, this means that any information needs energy
for transmission and matter for storage. Without either of these, there is no information.
In other words, the universe, with its matter and energy, has to exist before transmission
of information is possible. Saying that the universe is made of information, or that it
is information, is as meaningful and as correct as saying that the universe is made of
toothpaste.
The aim of physics is to give a complete classification of all types and examples of
motion, in other words, to know everything about motion. Is this possible? Or are you
able to find an argument against this endeavour?
What is memory?

Ref. 206

Memory is the collection of records of perceptions. The production of such records is


the essential aspect of observation. Records can be stored in human memory, i.e., in the
brain, or in machine memory, as in computers, or in object memory, such as notes on
paper. Without memory, there is no science, no life since life is based on the records
inside the DNA and especially, no fun, as proven by the sad life of those who lose their
memory.
Many animals and people have a memory, because a memory helps to move in a way

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The brain is my second favorite organ.


Woody Allen

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 240 s

Amount

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Vol. I, page 339


Challenge 239 s

K i n d o f i n f o r m at i o n

the story of the brain

227

F I G U R E 151 Photograph of stained pyramidal

neurons in the cerebral cortex of the human


cortex, showing their interconnections
(textcopyright Medlat/Wikimedia).

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014


free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Ref. 213

* The brain has various modes of learning that depends on its hardware. In a traumatic event, the brain
learns within a few seconds to avoid similar situations for the rest of its life. In contrast, learning at school
can take many months for a simple idea. It fact everybody can influence the ease and speed of learning; by
mentally attaching images, voices, emotions, fantasies or memories to a topic or situation, one can speed
up learning and reduce learning effort considerably.
Research has shown that in the amygdala, where emotions and memory are combined, the enzyme calcineurin and the gene regulator Zif268 are important for traumatic memory: low calcineurin levels lead to
increased expression of the gene regulator and to longer-lasting traumatic memory, high levels reduce the
traumatic effect.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

that maximises reproduction and survival. Memory is found in all mammals, but also in
insects and snails. The well-known sea snail Aplysia californica has memory is shows
conditioning, like Pawlows dogs even though it has only 20 000 neurons. Experiments
confirm that individual memory is stored in the strength of neuron connections, the
synapses. This statement was made already in 1949 by the Canadian psychologist Donald
Hebb. In that year Hebb specified the physical embodiment of the observations of the
psychologists Sigmund Freud and William James from the 1890s, who had already deduced that memory is about the strengthening and weakening of connections inside the
brain. In short, observations and learning, everything we call memories, are recorded in
the synapses.*
Obviously every record is an object. But under which conditions does an object qualify as a record? A signature can be the record of the agreement on a commercial transaction. A single small dot of ink is not a record, because it could have appeared by mistake,
for example by an accidental blot. In contrast, it is improbable that ink should fall on
paper exactly in the shape of a signature. (The simple signatures of physicians are obviously exceptions.) Simply speaking, a record is any object, which, in order to be copied,
has to be forged. More precisely, a record is an object or a situation that cannot arise nor
disappear by mistake or by chance. Our personal memories, be they images or voices,
have the same property; we can usually trust them, because they are so detailed that they
cannot have arisen by chance or by uncontrolled processes in our brain.
Can we estimate the probability for a record to appear or disappear by chance? Yes, we
can. Every record is made of a characteristic number N of small entities, for example the
number of the possible ink dots on paper, the number of iron crystals in a cassette tape,

228

Challenge 241 ny

7 the story of the brain

the electrons in a bit of computer memory, the silver iodide grains in a photographic negative, etc. The chance disturbances in any memory are due to internal fluctuations, also
called noise. Noise makes the record unreadable; it can be dirt on a signature, thermal
magnetization changes in iron crystals, electromagnetic noise inside a solid state memory, etc. Noise is found in all classifiers, since it is inherent in all interactions and thus in
all information processing.
It is a general property that internal fluctuations due to noise decrease when the size,
i.e., the number of components of the record is increased. In fact, the probability pmis for
a misreading or miswriting of a record changes as
pmis 1/N ,

and the number ln 2 0.69 is the natural logarithm of 2. Erasing thus on the one hand
reduces the disorder of the data the local entropy, but on the other hand increases the
total entropy. As is well known, energy is needed to reduce the entropy of a local system.
In short, any system that erases memory requires energy. For example, a logical AND gate
effectively erases one bit per operation. Logical thinking thus requires energy.

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Challenge 243 e

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Vol. I, page 296

where N is the number of particles or subsystems used for storing it. This relation appears
because, for large numbers, the so-called normal distribution is a good approximation of
almost any process. In particular, the width of the normal distribution, which determines
the probability of record errors, grows less rapidly than its integral when the number of
entities is increased; for large numbers, such statements become more and more precise.
We conclude that any good record must be made from a large number of entities. The
larger the number, the less sensitive the memory is to fluctuations. Now, a system of large
size with small fluctuations is called a (physical) bath. Only baths make memories possible. In other words, every record contains a bath. We conclude that any observation of a
system is the interaction of that system with a bath. This connection will be used several
times in the following, in particular in quantum theory. When a record is produced by a
machine, the observation is usually called a (generalized) measurement. Are you able to
specify the bath in the case of a person looking at a landscape?
From the preceding discussion we can deduce a powerful conclusion: since we have
such a good memory at our disposition, we can deduce that we are made of many small
parts. And since records exist, the world must also be made of a large number of small
parts. No microscope of any kind is needed to confirm the existence of molecules or
similar small entities; such a tool is only needed to determine the sizes of these particles.
Their existence can be deduced simply from the observation that we have memory. (Of
course, another argument proving that matter is made of small parts is the ubiquity of
noise.)
A second conclusion was popularized in the late 1920s by Leo Szilard. Writing a memory does not necessarily produce entropy; it is possible to store information into a memory without increasing entropy. However, entropy is produced in every case that the
memory is erased. It turns out that the (minimum) entropy created by erasing one bit
is given by
Sper erased bit = k ln 2 ,
(94)

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Challenge 242 s

(93)

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Challenge 244 s

Ref. 214

229

It is also known that dreaming is connected with the erasing and reorganization of
information. Could that be the reason that, when we are very tired, without any energy
left, we do not dream as much as usual? In dreams, the brain reorganizes the experiences
made in the past. Dreams tell us what keeps our unconscious busy. Every person must decide by herself what to do with dreams that we recall. In short, dreams have no meaning
we give them meaning. In any case, dreams are one of the brains ways to use memory
efficiently.
Entropy is thus necessarily created when we forget. This is evident when we remind
ourselves that forgetting is similar to the deterioration of an ancient manuscript. Entropy
increases when the manuscript is not readable any more, since the process is irreversible
and dissipative.* Another way to see this is to recognize that to clear a memory, e.g. a
magnetic tape, we have to put energy into it, and thus increase its entropy. Conversely,
writing into a memory can often reduce entropy; we remember that signals, the entities
that write memories, carry negative entropy. For example, the writing of magnetic tapes
usually reduces their entropy.

Ref. 216

* As Wojciech Zurek clearly explains, the entropy created inside the memory is the main reason that even
Maxwells demon cannot reduce the entropy of two volumes of gases by opening a door between them
in such a way that fast molecules accumulate on one side and slow molecules accumulate on the other.
(Maxwell had introduced the demon in 1871, to clarify the limits posed by nature to the gods.) This is just
another way to rephrase the old result of Leo Szilard, who showed that the measurements by the demon
create more entropy than they can save. And every measurement apparatus contains a memory.
To play being Maxwells demon, look for one of the many computer game implementations around the
internet.

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Ref. 215

The human brain is built in such a way that its fluctuations cannot destroy its contents.
The brain is well protected by the skull for exactly this reason. In addition, the brain
literally grows connections, called synapses, between its various neurons, which are the
cells doing the signal processing. The neuron is the basic processing element of the brain,
performing the basic classification. It can only do two things: to fire and not to fire. (It
is possible that the time at which a neuron fires also carries information; this question is
not yet settled.) The neuron fires depending on its input, which comes via the synapses
from hundreds of other neurons. A neuron is thus an element that can distinguish the
inputs it receives into two cases: those leading to firing and those that do not. Neurons
are thus classifiers of the simplest type, able only to distinguish between two situations.
Every time we store something in our long term memory, such as a phone number,
the connection strength of existing synapses is changed or new synapses are grown. The
connections between the neurons are much stronger than the fluctuations in the brain.
Only strong disturbances, such as a blocked blood vessel or a brain lesion, can destroy
neurons and lead to loss of memory.
As a whole, the brain provides an extremely efficient memory. Despite intense efforts,
engineers have not yet been able to build a memory with the capacity of the brain in

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 217, Ref. 218

Computers are boring. They can give only


answers.
(Wrongly) attributed to Pablo Picasso

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The capacity of the brain

230

7 the story of the brain

the same volume. Let us estimated this memory capacity. By multiplying the number of
neurons, about 1011 ,* by the average number of synapses per neuron, about 100, and also
by the estimated average number of bits stored in every synapse, about 10**, we arrive at
a conservative estimate for the storage capacity of the brain of about
Mrewritable 1014 bit 104 GB .

(One byte, abbreviated B, is the usual name for eight bits of information.) Note that evolution has managed to put as many neurons in the brain as there are stars in the galaxy, and
that if we add all the dendrite lengths, we get a total length of about 1011 m, which corresponds to the distance to from the Earth to the Sun. Our brain truly is astronomically
complex.
However, this standard estimate of 1014 bits is not really correct! It assumes that the
only component storing information in the brain is the synapse strength. Therefore it
only measures the erasable storage capacity of the brain. In fact, information is also stored
in the structure of the brain, i.e., in the exact configuration in which every cell is connected to other cells. Most of this structure is fixed at the age of about two years, but it
continues to develop at a lower level for the rest of human life. Assuming that for each
of the N cells with n connections there are f n connection possibilities, this write once
capacity of the brain can be estimated as roughly N f n f n log f n bits. For N = 1011 ,
n = 102 , f = 6, this gives
Mwriteonce 1016 bit 106 GB .

* The number of neurons seems to be constant, and fixed at birth. The growth of interconnections is highest
between age one and three, when it is said to reach up to 107 new connections per second.
** This is an average. Some types of synapses in the brain, in the hippocampus, are known to store only one
bit.

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Structural brain changes are measurable. Recent measurements confirmed that bilingual
persons, especially early bilinguals, have a higher density of grey mass in the small parietal cortex on the left hemisphere of the brain. This is a region mainly concerned with
language processing. The brain thus makes also use of structural changes for optimized
storage and processing. Structure changes are also known for other populations, such as
autistics, homophiles and hyperactive children. Intense and prolonged experiences during pregnancy or childhood seem to induce such structural developments.
Sometimes it is claimed that people use only between 5% or 10% of their brain capacity. This myth, which goes back to the nineteenth century, would imply that it is possible
to measure the actual data stored in the brain and compare it with its available maximum. Alternatively, the myth implies that the processing capacity can be measured and
compared with an available maximum capacity. The myth also implies that nature would
develop and maintain an organ with 90 % overcapacity, wasting all the energy and material to build, repair and maintain it. The myth is wrong. At present, the storage capacity
and the processing capacity of a brain cannot be measured, but only estimated.
The large storage capacity of the brain also shows that human memory is filled by
the environment and is not inborn: one human ovule plus one sperm have a mass of

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 219

(96)

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 245 e

(95)

the story of the brain

Ref. 220

231

Mintellectual 1 GB ,

(97)

Teachers should all be brain experts. The brain learns best when it has an aim. Without
an aim, both the lecture preparation and the lecture performance will lose most of its
possible effects. How many teachers state the aim of their class at its beginning?
* Also the power consumption of the brain is important: even though it contains only about 2% of the bodys
mass, it uses 25% of the energy taken in by food.

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Curiosities about the brain

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

though with a large experimental error.


The brain is also unparalleled in its processing capacity. This is most clearly demonstrated by the most important consequence deriving from memory and classification:
thought and language. Indeed, the many types of thinking or language we use, such as
comparing, distinguishing, remembering, recognizing, connecting, describing, deducing, explaining, imagining, etc., all describe different ways to classify memories or perceptions. In the end, every type of thinking or talking directly or indirectly classifies
observations. But how far are computers from achieving this! The first attempt, in 1966,
was a programming joke by Joseph Weizenbaum: the famous chatterbot program Eliza
(try it at www.manifestation.com/neurotoys/eliza.php3) is a parody of a psychoanalyst.
Even today, over 40 years later, conversation with a computer program, such as Friendbot
(found at www.friendbot.co.uk), is still a disappointing experience. The huge capacity of
the brain is the main reason for this disappointment.
Incidentally, even though the brains of sperm whales and of elephants can be five to
six times as heavy as those of humans, the number of neurons and connections, and thus
the capacity, is lower than for humans. Snails, ants, small fish have neuron numbers of the
order of 10 000; the well-studied nematode Caenorhabditis elegans has only 302, though
other animals have even fewer.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

about 1 mg, which corresponds to about 3 1016 atoms. Obviously, fluctuations make it
impossible to store 1016 bits in these systems. In fact, nature stores only about 6109 DNA
base pairs or 12 109 bits in the genes of a fecundated ovule, using 3 106 atoms per bit.
In contrast, a typical brain has a mass of 1.5 to 2 kg and contains about 5 to 7 1025 atoms,
which makes it as efficient a memory as an ovule. The difference between the number of
bits in human DNA and those in the brain nicely shows that almost all information stored
in the brain is taken from the environment; it cannot be of genetic origin, even allowing
for smart decompression of stored information.
In total, all the tricks used by nature result in the most powerful classifier yet known.*
Are there any limits to the brains capacity to memorize and to classify? With the tools that
humans have developed to expand the possibilities of the brain, such as paper, writing
and printing to support memory, and the numerous tools available to simplify and to
abbreviate classifications explored by mathematicians, brain classification is only limited
by the time spent practising it. Without tools, there are strict limits, of course. The twomillimetre thick cerebral cortex of humans has a surface of about four sheets of A4 paper,
a chimpanzees yields one sheet and a monkeys is the size of a postcard. It is estimated
that the total intellectually accessible memory is of the order of

232

7 the story of the brain

The brain also leans best when it is motivated. Different students need different motivations: potential applications, curiosity, competition, activation of already acquired
knowledge, impressing the opposite sex, or exploring the unknown. And students need
motivations on different levels of difficulty. Which teacher provides this mix?
Finally, brains in students have different ways to create concepts: using words, sounds,
images, emotions, body sensations, etc. Which teacher addresses them all in his lessons?

Ref. 221

One interesting side of the human brain is the wide range of passions it produces. For
example, there are people whose passion drives them to dedicate all their life to singing.
There are people whose life-long passion is to invent languages; John Ronald Tolkien is
the most famous example. There are other people whose passion is to help murderers to
find peace of mind. Some people dedicate their life to raising handicapped children un-

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Ref. 222

The brain has many interesting sides. The technique of neurofeedback is an example. A
few electrodes are attached to the skin of the head, and a feedback loop is created with
help of a visualization on a screen. Such a visualisation helps to put oneself into hightheta state corresponding to deep relaxation , or into the SMR state corresponding
to rest and concentration , or into alpha-dominated states corresponding to relaxation
with closed eyes. Learning to switch rapidly between these states is helping athletes, surgeons, dancers, musicians, singers and children with attention deficit syndrome. After a
few sessions, the effects stay for over a year. For attention deficit syndrome, the results
are as good as with medication.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Many cognitive activities of the brain are located in specific regions of the cerebral cortex,
also called grey matter (see Figure 148). It is known that all grey matter is built of a large
number of parallel, but largely independent structures, the so-called neocortical columns;
they are similar to microprocessors. Each neocortical column has input and outputs, but
works independently of the others; it is about 2 mm in height, 0.5 mm in diameter, and
contains about 10 00 neurons of various types. The human cortex contains several millions of these columns, arranged in six layers. At present, researchers are able to simulate
one neocortical column with one supercomputer. For more details, see the bluebrain.epfl.
ch website. In short, your brain corresponds to several million supercomputers. Take
good care of it.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

The brain plays strange games on the people that carry it. Modern research has shown
that school pupils can be distinguished into five separate groups.
1. Smart students
2. Uninterested students
3. Students that overestimate themselves (often, but not always, boys)
4. Students that underestimate themselves (often, but not always, girls)
5. Struggling/weak students
This has to be kept in mind when teaching classes. To which group do/did you belong?

the story of the brain

233

wanted by their parents. Other people dedicate their life to implementing rapid solutions
for infrastructure problems water, gas and electricity supplies in cities under war. The
examples one can find are fascinating.

Ref. 223

We learn better if we recall what we learned. Experiments show that remembering


strengthens synapses, and thus strengthens our memory. We learn better if we know
the reasons for the things we are learning. Experiments show that causality strengthens
synapses.

We learn while sleeping. The brain stores most things we experience during the day in a
region called the hippocampus. During deep sleep, i.e., in the sleep time without dreams,
the brain selects which of those experiences need to be stored in its long-time memory,
the neocortex. The selection is based on the emotions attached to the memory, especially
excitement, fear or anger. But also the expectation of a reward such as a present or the
possibility to make good impression when asked about the topic is extremely effective
in transferring content into the neocortex, as research by Jan Born has shown. If this rule
is followed, sleeping just after learning, and in particular, deep sleep, is the best way to
study. The most effective way to learn a language, to learn a new topic, or to memorize a

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copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Cats are smart animals, and everybody who interacts with them knows how elaborate
their behaviour and the spectrum of their activities is. All this is organized by a brain of
the size of a walnut, with about 300 million neurons.
Interestingly, every human has roughly the same number of neurons that are found
in a cats brain in a place outside the brain: the belly. This group of neurons is called the
enteric nervous system. This large collection of neurons, over 100 millions of them, controls the behaviour of the gut cells in particular, the first layer of gut cells that comes
in contact with food and controls the production of many enzymes and neurotransmitters, which in turn influence our mood. The enteric nervous system is the anatomical
basis for our gut feelings.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Many functions in the brain are not performed by the programmable part of the brain,
the cortex, but by specialized hardware. The list of known specialized hardware parts of
the brain is still growing, as discoveries are still being made. Researchers have discovered
dedicated neurons that control the walking process in each leg, dedicated neurons the
so-called mirror neurons that re-enact what people we see are feeling or acting, and
dedicated neurons from the eye to the brain that control the daynight cycle. These recent discoveries complement the older ones that there is specialized hardware for every
sense in the neural system, from touch to smell to proprioception. In short, many basic
functions of the neural system are wired in, and many advanced functions are as well.
The full list of wired-in systems is not known yet. For example, only future research will
help us to understand how much of our subconscious is due to hardware, and how much
is due to the software in the cortex.

234

Ref. 224

7 the story of the brain

presentation is to sleep just after study or training.


Deep sleep helps learning. Deep sleep can be promoted in many ways. Effort, sport,
and even electric stimulation increases deep sleep. The pharmaceutic industry is now trying to develop sleeping pills that increase deep sleep. Alcohol, most sleeping pills, television, the internet and traumatic events decrease deep sleep. Jan Born states that most
probably, sleep exists in order to enable us to learn; no other explanation for the loss of
consciousness during deep sleep is convincing.
How do we sleep? When we are awake, all sense input is sent to the thalamus, which
filters it and sends it to the neocortex. During sleep the neocortex effectively switches
off large parts of the thalamus, so that almost no sense input arrives to the neocortex.
Modelling these processes even allows to understand how sleep starts and to reproduce
the brain waves seen during the beginning of sleep.

During pregnancy, the brain of the embryo grows at a rate of 250 000 neurons per minute.
The rate shows how fascinating a process life is.

Many switches has three states; one could call them -1, 0, 1. Thus, building computers
based on trits intead of bits is a realistic option. Why are there no 27-trit computers?

The neurotransmitters that influence moods are still a topic of intense research. Such
research has shown that a specific peptide called hypocretin or also orexin leads to high
alertness, to increases appetite and above all to good mood. Whether this really is the
happiness hormone, as is sometimes claimed, still has to be tested.

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Challenge 246 s

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Brains and computers differ markedly in the way they work. Brains are analog, computers
are digital. How exactly do computers work? The general answer is: computers are a smart
and organized collection of electrical switches. To make matters as easy as possible, the
calculation engine inside a computer the so-called central processing unit, the heart of
the computer calculates using binary numbers. The on and off states of a switch are
associated to the digits 1 and 0. Can you devise a simple collection of switches that
allows adding two binary numbers of one digit? Of many digits? And to multiply two
numbers? Try it it is an interesting exercise.
Computers are called digital because they are based on switches. Indeed, all integrated
circuits inside a pocket calculator or inside a laptop are just collections of electrical
switches; modern specimen can contain several millions of them, each switch with a
specific function.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Many modern research results on animal and human brains can be found at the Brain
Map website, available at www.brain-map.org.

235
the story of the brain

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

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Chapter 8

THOUGHT AND L ANGUAGE

Reserve your right to think, for even to think


wrongly is better than not to think at all.
Hypatia of Alexandria

What is language?

Ref. 225

Using the ability to produce sounds and to put ink on paper, people attach certain symbols,** also called words or terms in this context, to the many partitions they specify with
the help of their thinking. Such a categorization is then said to define a concept or notion,
and is set in italic typeface in this text. A standard set of concepts forms a language.*** In
other words, we have:
A (human) language is a standard way of symbolic interaction between
people.

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* A proposition can only say how a thing is, not what it is.
** A symbol is a type of sign, i.e., an entity associated by some convention to the object it refers. Following
Charles Peirce (18391914) see www.peirce.org the most original philosopher born in the United States,
a symbol differs from an icon (or image) and from an index, which are also attached to objects by convention,
in that it does not resemble the object, as does an icon, and in that it has no contact with the object, as is
the case for an index.
*** The recognition that language is based on a partition of ideas, using the various differences between
them to distinguish them from each other, goes back to the Swiss thinker Ferdinand de Saussure (1857
1913), who is regarded as the founder of linguistics. His textbook Cours de linguistique gnrale, Editions
Payot, 1985, has been the reference work of the field for over half a century. Note that Saussure, in contrast
to Peirce, prefers the term sign to symbol, and that his definition of the term sign includes also the object
to which it refers.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ein Satz kann nur sagen, wie ein Ding ist, nicht
was es ist.*
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 3.221

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

anguage possibly is the most wonderful gift of human nature. We have all
earned it from somebody who cared about us. Nevertheless, the origins of
anguage are hidden in the distant past of humanity. But we must explore language, because we have repeatedly stated that physics is talking about motion. Physics is
a precise language specialized for the description of motion. We will find out in our walk
that this is not a restriction, because everything in the world moves. But our quest for
precision demands that we explore the meaning, use and limits of language.

thought and l anguage

237

TA B L E 20 Language basics.

Aspect

Va l u e

Human phonemes
English phonemes
German phonemes
Italian phonemes
Words of the English language (more than most
languages, with the possible exception of
German)
Number of languages on Earth in the year 2000

c. 70
44
40
30
c. 350 000

c. 6000

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This definition of language distinguishes human spoken and sign language from animal
languages, such as the signs used by apes, birds or honey bees, and also from computer
languages, such as Pascal or C. With this meaning of language, all statements can be
translated by definition.
It is more challenging for a discussion to follow the opposing view, namely that precise translation is possible only for those statements which use terms, word types and
grammatical structures found in all languages. Linguistic research has invested consid-

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Only sign systems that allow one to express the complete spectrum of human messages form a human language.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

There are human languages based on facial expressions, on gestures, on spoken words, on
whistles, on written words, and more. The use of spoken language is considerably younger
than the human species; it seems that it appeared only about two hundred thousand years
ago. Written language is even younger, namely only about six thousand years old. But the
set of concepts used, the vocabulary, is still expanding. For humans, the understanding of
language begins soon after birth (perhaps even before), the active use begins at around a
year of age, the ability to read can start as early as two, and personal vocabulary continues
to grow as long as curiosity is alive.
Physics being a lazy way to chat about motion, it needs language as an essential tool.
Of the many aspects of language, from literature to poetry, from jokes to military orders, from expressions of encouragement, dreams, love and emotions, physics uses only
a small and rather special segment. This segment is defined by the inherent restriction
to talk about motion. Since motion is an observation, i.e., an interaction with the environment that several people experience in the same way, this choice puts a number of
restrictions on the contents the vocabulary and on the form the grammar of such
discussions.
For example, from the definition that observations are shared by others, we get the
requirement that the statements describing them must be translatable into all languages.
But when can a statement be translated? On this question two extreme points of view are
possible: the first maintains that all statements can be translated, since it follows from the
properties of human languages that each of them can express every possible statement.
In this view, we can say:

238

Challenge 247 e

Only a set of concepts that includes the universal semantic primitives forms

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Ref. 226

* A professional database by the linguist Merritt Ruhlen with 5700 languages and many details on each
language can be found at ehl.santafe.edu/intro1.htm. A long but unprofessional list with 6 900 languages
(and with 39 000 language and dialect names) can be found on the website www.ethnologue.com. Beware,
it is edited by a fringe religious group that aims to increase the number of languages as much as possible.
It is estimated that 15 000 5 000 languages have existed in the past.
Nevertheless, in todays world, and surely in the sciences, it is often sufficient to know ones own language
plus English. Since English is the language with the largest number of words, learning it well is a greater
challenge than learning most other languages.
** Phonological studies also explore topics such as the observation that in many languages the word for
little contains an i (or high pitched e) sound: petit, piccolo, klein, tiny, pequeo, chiisai; exceptions are:
small, parvus.
*** It is easy to imagine that this research steps on the toes of many people. A list that maintains that we only
have about thirty basic concepts in our heads is taken to be offensive by many small minds. In addition, a list
that maintains that true, good, creation, life, mother or god are composite will elicit violent reactions,
despite the correctness of the statements. Indeed, some of these terms were added in the 1996 list, which is
somewhat longer.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

erable effort in the distillation of phonological, grammatical and semantic universals, as


they are called, from the 6000 or so languages thought to exist today.*
The investigations into the phonological aspect, which showed for example that every
language has at least two consonants and two vowels, does not provide any material for
the discussion of translation.** Studying the grammatical (or syntactic) aspect, one finds
that all languages use smallest elements, called words, which they group into sentences.
They all have pronouns for the first and second person, I and you, and always contain
nouns and verbs. All languages use subjects and predicates or, as one usually says, the
three entities subject, verb and object, though not always in this order. Just check the
languages you know.
On the semantic aspect, the long list of lexical universals, i.e., words that appear in
all languages, such as mother or Sun, has recently been given a structure. The linguist
Anna Wierzbicka performed a search for the building blocks from which all concepts
can be built. She looked for the definition of every concept with the help of simpler ones,
and continued doing so until a fundamental level was reached that cannot be further
reduced. The set of concepts that are left over are the primitives. By repeating this exercise
in many languages, Wierzbicka found that the list is the same in all cases. She thus had
discovered universal semantic primitives. In November 1992, the list contained the terms
given in Table 21.
Following the life-long research of Anna Wierzbicka and her research school, all these
concepts exist in all languages of the world studied so far.*** They have defined the meaning of each primitive in detail, performed consistency checks and eliminated alternative
approaches. They have checked this list in languages from all language groups, in languages from all continents, thus showing that the result is valid everywhere. In every
language all other concepts can be defined with the help of the semantic primitives.
Simply stated, learning to speak means learning these basic terms, learning how to
combine them and learning the names of these composites. The definition of language
given above, namely as a means of communication that allows one to express everything
one wants to say, can thus be refined:

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 227

8 thought and l anguage

thought and l anguage

239

TA B L E 21 The semantic primitives, following Anna Wierzbicka.

a human language.

Vol. I, page 378

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Vol. IV, page 15

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 248 d

For physicists who aim to talk in as few words as possible the list of semantic
primitives has three facets. First, the approach is similar to physics own aim: the idea of
primitives gives a structured summary of everything that can be said, just as the atomic
elements structure all objects that can be observed. Second, the list of primitives can be
divided into two groups: one group contains all terms describing motion (do, happen,
when, where, feel, small, etc. probably a term from the semantic field around light or
colour should be added) and the other group contains all terms necessary to talk about
abstract sets and relations (this, all, kind of, no, if, etc.). Even for linguistics, aspects of
motion and logical concepts are the basic entities of human experience and human thinking. To bring the issue to a point, the semantic primitives contain the basic elements of
physics and the basic elements of mathematics. All humans are thus both physicists and
mathematicians. The third point is that the list of primitives is too long. The division of
the list into two groups directly suggests shorter lists; we just have to ask physicists and
mathematicians for concise summaries of their respective fields. To appreciate this aim,
try to define what if means, or what an opposite is and explore your own ways of
reducing the list.
Reducing the list of primitives is also one of our aims in this adventure. We will explore
the mathematical group of primitives in this chapter. The physical group will occupy us in
the rest of our adventure. However, a shorter list of primitives is not sufficient. Our goal
is to arrive at a list consisting of only one basic concept. Reaching this goal is not simple,
though. First, we need to check whether the set of classical physical concepts that we have
discovered so far is complete. Can classical physical concepts describe all observations?
The volume on quantum physics of our adventure is devoted to this question. The second
task is to reduce the list. This task is not straightforward; we have already discovered that
physics is based on a circular definition: in Galilean physics, space and time are defined
using matter, and matter is defined using space and time. We will need quite some effort

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

I, you, someone, something, people


[substantives]
this, the same, one, two, all, much/many [determiners and quantifiers]
know, want, think, feel, say
[mental predicates]
do, happen
[agent, patient]
good, bad
[evaluative]
big, small
[descriptors]
very
[intensifier]
can, if (would)
[modality, irrealis]
because
[causation]
no (not)
[negation]
when, where, after (before), under (above) [time and place]
kind of, part of
[taxonomy, partonomy]
like
[hedge/prototype]

240

8 thought and l anguage

to overcome this obstacle. The final part of this text tells the precise story. After numerous
adventures we will indeed discover a basic concept on which all other concepts are based.
Vol. VI, page 140

We can summarize all the above-mentioned results of linguistics in the following way.
By constructing a statement made only of subject, verb and object, consisting only of
nouns and verbs, using only concepts built from the semantic primitives, we are sure
that it can be translated into all languages. This explains why physics textbooks are often
so boring: the authors are often too afraid to depart from this basic scheme. On the other
hand, research has shown that such straightforward statements are not restrictive: with
them one can say everything that can be said.

Every word was once a poem.


Ralph Waldo Emerson**

Concepts are merely the results, rendered


permanent by language, of a previous process of
comparison.
William Hamilton

However, despite the involved precision, in fact precisely because of it, no mathematical concept talks about nature or about observations.*** Therefore the study of motion
needs other, more useful concepts. What properties must a useful concept have? For example, what is passion and what is a cotton bud? Obviously, a useful concept implies
a list of its parts, its aspects and their internal relations, as well as their relation to the
exterior world. Thinkers in various fields, from philosophy to politics, agree that the definition is:

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

* Every word is a prejudice. Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), German philosopher.


** Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882), US-American essayist and philosopher.
*** Insofar as one can say that mathematics is based on the concepts of set and relation, which are based
on experience, one can say that mathematics explores a section of reality, and that its concepts are derived
from experience. This and similar views of mathematics are called platonism. More concretely, platonism is
the view that the concepts of mathematics exist independently of people, and that they are discovered, and
not created, by mathematicians.
In short, since mathematics makes use of the brain, which is a physical system, actually mathematics is
applied physics.
However, we will discover that the concept of set does not apply to nature; this changes the discussion
in completely.

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There is a group of people that has taken the strict view on translation and on precision
to the extreme. They build all concepts from an even smaller set of primitives, namely
only two: set and relation, and explore the various possible combinations of these two
concepts, studying their classifications. Step by step, this radical group, commonly called
mathematicians, came to define with full precision concepts such as numbers, points,
curves, equations, symmetry groups and more. The construction of these concepts is
summarized partly in the following and partly in the following volume of this adventure.
Vol. IV, page 210

Vol. VI, page 100

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

What is a concept?

Jedes Wort ist ein Vorurteil.


Friedrich Nietzsche*

thought and l anguage

241

A concept has
1. explicit and fixed content,
2. explicit and fixed limits,
3. explicit and fixed domain of application.

Challenge 249 s

Challenge 250 s

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014


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* We see that every physical concept is an example of a (mathematical) category, i.e., a combination of
objects and mappings. For more details about categories, with a precise definition of the term, see page 246.
** Concepts formed unconsciously in our early youth are the most difficult to define precisely, i.e., with
language. Some who were unable to define them, such as the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724
1804) used to call them a priori concepts (such as space and time) to contrast them with the more clearly
defined a posteriori concepts. Today, this distinction has been shown to be unfounded both by the study
of child psychology (see the footnote on page 219) and by physics itself, so that these qualifiers are therefore
not used in our walk.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

The inability to state these properties or to keep them fixed is often the easiest way to
distinguish crackpots from more reliable thinkers. Unclearly defined terms, which thus
do not qualify as concepts, regularly appear in myths, e.g. dragon or sphinx, or in ideologies, e.g. worker or soul. Even physics is not immune. For example, we will discover
later that neither universe nor creation are concepts. Are you able to argue the case?
But the three defining properties of any concept are interesting in their own right.
Explicit content means that concepts are built one onto another. In particular, the most
fundamental concepts appear to be those that have no parts and no external relations,
but only internal ones. Can you think of one? Only the last part of this walk will uncover
the final word on the topic.
The requirements of explicit limits and explicit contents also imply that all concepts
describing nature are sets, since sets obey the same requirements. In addition, explicit
domains of application imply that all concepts also are relations.* Since mathematics is
based on the concepts of set and of relation, one follows directly that mathematics can
provide the form for any concept, especially whenever high precision is required, as in
the study of motion. Obviously, the content of the description is only provided by the
study of nature itself; only then do concepts become useful.
In the case of physics, the search for sufficiently precise concepts can be seen as the
single theme structuring the long history of the field. Regularly, new concepts have been
proposed, explored in all their properties, and tested. Finally, concepts are rejected or
adopted, in the same way that children reject or adopt a new toy. Children do this unconsciously, scientists do it consciously, using language.** For this reason, concepts are
universally intelligible.
Note that the concept concept itself is not definable independently of experience; a
concept is something that helps us to act and react to the world in which we live. Moreover, concepts do not live in a world separate from the physical one: every concept requires memory from its user, since the user has to remember the way in which it was
formed; therefore every concept needs a material support for its use and application.
Thus all thinking and all science is fundamentally based on experience.
In conclusion, all concepts are based on the idea that nature is made of related
parts. This idea leads to complementing couples such as nounverb in linguistics, set
relation or definitiontheorem in mathematics, and aspect of naturepattern of nature

242

8 thought and l anguage

F I G U R E 152 Devices for the denition of sets (left)

and of relations (right).

in physics. These couples constantly guide human thinking, from childhood onwards, as
developmental psychology can testify.
What are sets? What are relations?

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* Everything we see could also be otherwise. Everything we describe at all could also be otherwise. There
is no order of things a priori.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 251 s

Defining sets and defining relations are the two fundamental acts of our thinking. This
can be seen most clearly in any book about mathematics; such a book is usually divided
into paragraphs labelled definition, theorem, lemma and corollary. The first type of
paragraph defines concepts, i.e., defines sets, and the other three types of paragraphs express relations, i.e., connections between these sets. Mathematics is thus the exploration
of the possible symbolic concepts and their relations. Mathematics is the science of symbolic necessities.
Sets and relations are tools of classification; that is why they are also the tools of any
bureaucrat. (See Figure 152.) This class of humans is characterized by heavy use of paper clips, files, metal closets, archives which all define various types of sets and by
the extensive use of numbers, such as reference numbers, customer numbers, passport
numbers, account numbers, law article numbers which define various types of relations
between the items, i.e., between the elements of the sets.
Both the concepts of set and of relation express, in different ways, the fact that nature can be described, i.e., that it can be classified into parts that form a whole. The act
of grouping together aspects of experience, i.e., the act of classifying them, is expressed
in formal language by saying that a set is defined. In other words, a set is a collection of
elements of our thinking. Every set distinguishes the elements from each other and from
the set itself. This definition of set is called the naive definition. For physics, the definition is sufficient, but you wont find many who will admit this. In fact, mathematicians
have refined the definition of the concept set several times, because the naive definition
does not work well for infinite sets. A famous example is the story about sets which do
not contain themselves. Obviously, any set is of two sorts: either it contains itself or it
does not. If we take the set of all sets that do not contain themselves, to which sort does
it belong?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Alles, was wir sehen, knnte auch anders sein.


Alles, was wir berhaupt beschreiben knnen,
knnte auch anders sein. Es gibt keine Ordnung
der Dinge a priori.*
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 5.634

thought and l anguage

243

TA B L E 22 The dening properties of a set the ZFC axioms

The axioms of Z ermeloFraenkelC set theory

a. The more common formulation


{0, {0}, {0, {0}}, {0, {0}, {0, {0}}}, ...} is a set.

Ref. 228
Page 245
Challenge 252 s

to

the

above)

is:

The

entity

To avoid problems with the concept of set, mathematics requires a precise definition.
The first such definition was given by the German mathematician Ernst Zermelo (b. 1871
Berlin, d. 1951 Freiburg i.B.) and the GermanIsraeli mathematician Adolf/Abraham
Fraenkel (b. 1891 Mnchen, d. 1965 Jerusalem). Later, the so-called axiom of choice was
added, in order to make it possible to manipulate a wider class of infinite sets. The result
of these efforts is called the ZFC definition.* From this basic definition we can construct
all mathematical concepts used in physics. From a practical point of view, it is sufficient
to keep in mind that for the whole of physics, the naive definition of a set is equivalent to
the precise ZFC definition, actually even to the simpler ZF definition. Subtleties appear
only for some special types of infinite sets, but these are not used in physics. In short,
from the basic, naive set definition we can construct all concepts used in physics.
The naive set definition is far from boring. To satisfy two people when dividing a
cake, we follow the rule: I cut, you choose. The method has two properties: it is just, as
everybody thinks that they have the share that they deserve, and it is fully satisfying, as
everybody has the feeling that they have at least as much as the other. What rule is needed
for three people? And for four?
* A global overview of axiomatic set theory is given by Paul J. Cohen & Reuben Hersch, NonCantorian set theory, Scientific American 217, pp. 104116, 1967. Those were the times when Scientific American was a quality magazine.
For a good introduction to the axiom of choice, see the www.math.vanderbilt.edu/~schectex/ccc/choice.
html website.
Other types of entities, more general than standard sets, obeying other properties, can also be defined,
and are also subject of (comparatively little) mathematical research. To find an example, see the section
on cardinals later on. Such more general entities are called classes whenever they contain at least one set.
Can you give an example? In the final part of our mountain ascent we will meet physical concepts that are
described neither by sets nor by classes, containing no set at all. That is where the real fun starts.

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Challenge 253 d

equivalent

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 229

(though

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Two sets are equal if and only if they have the same elements. (Axiom of extensionality)
The empty set is a set. (Axiom of the null set)
If x and y are sets, then the unordered pair {x, y} is a set. (Axiom of unordered pairs)
If x is a set of sets, the union of all its members is a set. (Union or sum set axiom)
The entity {0, {0}, {{0}}, {{{0}}}, ...} is a set a in other words, infinite collections, such as the
natural numbers, are sets. (Axiom of infinity)
An entity defined by all elements having a given property is a set, provided this property is
reasonable; some important technicalities defining reasonable are necessary. (Axiom of separation)
If the domain of a function is a set, so is its range. (Axiom of replacement)
The entity y of all subsets of x is also a set, called the power set. (Axiom of the power set)
A set is not an element of itself plus some technicalities. (Axiom of regularity)
The product of a family of non-empty sets is non-empty. Equivalently, picking elements from
a list of sets allows one to construct a new set plus technicalities. (Axiom of choice)

244

Challenge 254 s

8 thought and l anguage

* Therefore, most gods, being concepts and thus sets, are either finite or, in the case where they are infinite,
they are divisible. It seems that only polytheistic world views are not disturbed by this conclusion.

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Mathematicians soon discovered that the concept of set is only useful if one can also
call collections such as {0, 1, 2, 3...}, i.e., of the number 0 and all its successors, a set. To
achieve this, one property in the ZermeloFraenkel list defining the term set explicitly
specifies that this collection can be called a set. (In fact, also the axiom of replacement
states that sets may be infinite.) Infinity is thus put into mathematics and into the tools
of our thought right at the very beginning, in the definition of the term set. When describing nature, with or without mathematics, we should never forget this fact. A few
additional points about infinity should be of general knowledge to any expert on motion.
Only sets can be infinite. And sets have parts, namely their elements. When a thing or
a concept is called infinite one can always ask and specify what its parts are: for space
the parts are the points, for time the instants, for the set of integers the integers, etc. An
indivisible or a finitely divisible entity cannot be called infinite.*
A set is infinite if there is a function from it into itself that is injective (i.e., different
elements map to different results) but not onto (i.e., some elements do not appear as
images of the map); e.g. the map n 2n shows that the set of integers is infinite. Infinity

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Infinity

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Apart from defining sets, every child and every brain creates links between the different aspects of experience. For example, when it hears a voice, it automatically makes
the connection that a human is present. In formal language, connections of this type are
called relations. Relations connect and differentiate elements along other lines than sets:
the two form a complementing couple. Defining a set unifies many objects and at the
same time divides them into two: those belonging to the set and those that do not; defining a (binary) relation unifies elements two by two and divides them into many, namely
into the many couples it defines.
Sets and relations are closely interrelated concepts. Indeed, one can define (mathematical) relations with the help of sets. A (binary) relation between two sets X and Y is a
subset of the product set, where the product set or Cartesian product X Y is the set of all
ordered pairs (x, y) with x X and y Y . An ordered pair (x, y) can easily be defined
with the help of sets. Can you find out how? For example, in the case of the relation is
wife of , the set X is the set of all women and the set Y that of all men; the relation is given
by the list all the appropriate ordered pairs, which is much smaller than the product set,
i.e., the set of all possible womanman combinations.
It should be noted that the definition of relation just given is not really complete, since
every construction of the concept set already contains certain relations, such as the relation is element of. It does not seem to be possible to reduce either one of the concepts
set or relation completely to the other one. This situation is reflected in the physical
cases of sets and relations, such as space (as a set of points) and distance, which also
seem impossible to separate completely from each other. In other words, even though
mathematics does not pertain to nature, its two basic concepts, sets and relations, are
taken from nature. In addition, the two concepts, like those of space-time and particles,
are each defined with the other.

thought and l anguage

Challenge 255 s

Ref. 230

Challenge 257 e

* In fact, there is such a huge number of types of infinities that none of these infinities itself actually describes
this number. Technically speaking, there are as many infinities as there are ordinals.
** Many results are summarized in the excellent and delightful paperback by Rudy Rucker, Infinity and
the Mind the Science and Philosophy of the Infinite, Bantam, Toronto, 1983.

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Ref. 231

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 256 s

also can be checked in another way: a set is infinite if it remains so also after removing
one element, even repeatedly. We just need to remember that the empty set is finite.
There are many types of infinities, all of different sizes.* This important result was discovered by the Danish-Russian-German mathematician Georg Cantor (18451918). He
showed that from the countable set of natural numbers one can construct other infinite
sets which are not countable. He did this by showing that the power set P(), namely the
set of all subsets, of a countably infinite set is infinite, but not countably infinite. Sloppily
speaking, the power set is more infinite than the original set. The real numbers , to be
defined shortly, are an example of an uncountably infinite set; there are many more of
them than there are natural numbers. (Can you show this?) However, any type of infinite
set contains at least one subset which is countably infinite.
Even for an infinite set one can define size as the number of its elements. Cantor called
this the cardinality of a set. The cardinality of a finite set is simply given by the number
of its elements. The cardinality of a power set is 2 exponentiated by the cardinality of
the set. The cardinality of the set of integers is called 0 , pronounced aleph zero, after
the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The smallest uncountable cardinal is called 1 .
The next cardinal is called 2 etc. A whole branch of mathematics is concerned with
the manipulation of these infinite numbers; addition, multiplication, exponentiation are
easily defined. For some of them, even logarithms and other functions make sense.**
The cardinals defined in this way, including n , , are called accessible, because since Cantor, people have defined even larger types of infinities, called inaccessible.
These numbers (inaccessible cardinals, measurable cardinals, supercompact cardinals,
etc.) need additional set axioms, extending the ZFC system. Like the ordinals and the
cardinals, they form examples of what are called transfinite numbers.
The real numbers have the cardinality of the power set of the integers, namely 20 .
Can you show this? The result leads to the famous question: Is 1 = 20 or not? The
statement that this be so is called the continuum hypothesis and was unproven for several
generations. The surprising answer came in 1963: the usual definition of the concept of
set is not specific enough to fix the answer. By specifying the concept of set in more detail,
with additional axioms remember that axioms are defining properties you can make
the continuum hypothesis come out either right or wrong, as you prefer.
Another result of research into transfinites is important: for every definition of a type
of infinite cardinal, it seems to be possible to find a larger one. In everyday life, the idea
of infinity is often used to stop discussions about size: My big brother is stronger than
yours. But mine is infinitely stronger than yours! Mathematics has shown that questions
on size do continue afterwards: The strength of my brother is the power set of that of
yours! Rucker reports that mathematicians conjecture that there is no possible nor any
conceivable end to these discussions.
For physicists, a simple question appears directly. Do infinite quantities exist in nature? Or better, is it necessary to use infinite quantities to describe nature? You might
want to clarify your own opinion on the issue. It will be settled during the rest of our
adventure.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Vol. I, page 385

245

246

8 thought and l anguage

Functions and structures

f : X Y

and

f : x y

or

y = f (x) ,

(98)

: XX X

Page 283

: (x, x) y .

(99)

Is division of numbers an operation in the sense just defined?


Now we are ready to define the first of three basic concepts of mathematics. An algebraic structure, also called an algebraic system, is (in the most restricted sense) a set
* A category is defined as a collection of objects and a collection of morphisms, or mappings. Morphisms
can be composed; the composition is associative and there is an identity morphism. The strange world of
category theory, sometimes called the abstraction of all abstractions, is presented in William L aw vere
& Stephen H. S chanuel, Conceptual Mathematics: a First Introduction to Categories, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Note that every category contains a set; since it is unclear whether nature contains sets, as we will discuss
below,, it is questionable whether categories will be useful in the unification of physics, despite their intense
and abstract charm.

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Challenge 258 s

and

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

where the type of arrow with initial bar or not shows whether we are speaking about
sets or about elements.
We note that it is also possible to use the couple set and mapping to define all mathematical concepts; in this case a relation is defined with the help of mappings. A modern
school of mathematical thought formalized this approach by the use of (mathematical)
categories, a concept that includes both sets and mappings on an equal footing in its definition.*
To think and talk more clearly about nature, we need to define more specialized concepts than sets, relations and functions, because these basic terms are too general. The
most important concepts derived from them are operations, algebraic structures and
numbers.
A (binary) operation is a function that maps the Cartesian product of two copies of a
set X into itself. In other words, an operation takes an ordered couple of arguments
x X and assigns to it a value y X:

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Which relations are useful to describe patterns in nature? A typical example is larger
stones are heavier. Such a relation is of a specific type: it relates one specific value of an
observable volume to one specific value of the observable weight. Such a one-to-one
relation is called a (mathematical) function or mapping. Functions are the most specific
types of relations; thus they convey a maximum of information. In the same way as numbers are used for observables, functions allow easy and precise communication of relations between observations. All physical rules and laws are therefore expressed with the
help of functions and, since physical laws are about measurements, functions of numbers are their main building blocks.
A function f , or mapping, is a thus binary relation, i.e., a set f = {(x, y)} of ordered
pairs, where for every value of the first element x, called the argument, there is only one
pair (x, y). The second element y is called the value of the function at the argument x.
The set X of all arguments x is called the domain of definition and the set Y of all second
arguments y is called the range of the function. Instead of f = {(x, y)} one writes

thought and l anguage

Vol. V, page 340

Vol. V, page 347

Ref. 232

247

together with certain operations. The most important algebraic structures appearing in
physics are groups, vector spaces, and algebras.
In addition to algebraic structures, mathematics is based on order structures and on
topological structures. Order structures are building blocks of numbers and necessary to
define comparisons of any sort. Topological structures are built, via subsets, on the concept of neighbourhood. They are necessary to define continuity, limits, dimensionality,
topological spaces and manifolds.
Obviously, most mathematical structures are combinations of various examples of
these three basic structure types. For example, the system of real numbers is given by the
set of real numbers with the operations of addition and multiplication, the order relation
is larger than and a continuity property. They are thus built by combining an algebraic
structure, an order structure and a topological structure. Let us delve a bit into the details.
Numbers

Ref. 233

Never ask a man how many languages he has


learned, how many countries he has seen, how
much money he has accumulated, or how many
women he has loved. If he can give you a precise
answer, it means it was not enough.
Jacques Mayol

0 := 0 , 1 := S 0 = {0} = {0} ,
2 := S 1 = {0, 1} = {0, {0}} and n + 1 := S n = {0, ..., n} .

(100)

This set, together with the binary operations addition and multiplication, constitutes
the algebraic system N = (N , +, , 1) of the natural numbers. For all number systems
* However, there is no need for written numbers for doing mathematics, as shown by Marcia Ascher,
Ethnomathematics A Multicultural View of Mathematical Ideas, Brooks/Cole, 1991.

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Numbers are the oldest mathematical concept and are found in all cultures. The notion
of number, in Greek , has been changed several times. Each time the aim was to
include wider classes of objects, but always retaining the general idea that numbers are
entities that can be added, subtracted, multiplied and divided.
The modern way to write numbers, as e.g. in 12 345 679 54 = 666 666 666, is essential
for science.* It can be argued that the lack of a good system for writing down and for
calculating with numbers delayed the progress of science by several centuries. (By the
way, the same can be said for the affordable mass reproduction of written texts.)
The simplest numbers, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, ..., are usually seen as being taken directly from
experience. However, they can also be constructed from the notions of relation and set.
One of the many possible ways to do this (can you find another?) is by identifying a natural number with the set of its predecessors. With the relation successor of , abbreviated
S, this definition can be written as

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 260 s

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 259 s

Which numbers are multiplied by six when


their last digit is taken away and transferred to
the front?

248

Vol. IV, page 210

8 thought and l anguage

the algebraic system and the set are often sloppily designated by the same symbol. The
algebraic system N is what mathematician call a semi-ring. (Some authors prefer not to
count the number zero as a natural number.) Natural numbers are fairly useful.
TA B L E 23 Some large numbers.

Number
Around us
1
8
12

E x a m p l e i n n at u r e
number of angels that can be in one place at the same time, following
Thomas Aquinas Ref. 234
number of times a newspaper can be folded in alternate perpendicular directions
largest number of times a paper strip has been folded in the same direction
Ref. 235

20

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1019

record number of languages spoken by one person


words spoken on an average day by a man
words spoken on an average day by a woman
number of scientists on Earth around the year 2000
words spoken during a lifetime (2/3 time awake, 30 words per minute)
words heard and read during a lifetime
pulses exchanged between both brain halves every second
image pixels seen in a lifetime (3 109 s (1/15 ms) 2/3 (awake) 106 (nerves
to the brain) Ref. 237
bits of information processed in a lifetime (the above times 32)

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

1081
1090
10169
10244
Information
51
c. 5000
c. 7000
c. 2 000 000
3 108
109
4 109
1017

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

21, 34, 55, 89


57
2000 to 6000
15 000
105
6 to 7 109
1017
c. 1020
c. 1024
1022
1025
1.1 1050

number of digits in precision measurements that will probably never be


achieved
petals of common types of daisy and sunflower Ref. 236
faces of a diamond with brilliant cut
stars visible in the night sky
average number of objects in a European household
leaves of a tree (10 m beech)
humans in the year 2000
ants in the world
number of snowflakes falling on the Earth per year
grains of sand in the Sahara desert
stars in the universe
cells on Earth
atoms making up the Earth (63703 km3 4 3.14/3 5500 kg/m3 30 mol/kg
6 1023 /mol)
atoms in the visible universe
photons in the visible universe
number of atoms fitting in the visible universe
number of space-time points inside the visible universe

thought and l anguage

Number

E x a m p l e i n n at u r e

c. 5 1012

printed words available in (different) books around the world (c. 100 106
books consisting of 50 000 words)

The system of integers Z = (..., 2, 1, 0, 1, 2, ..., +, , 0, 1) is the minimal ring that is an


extension of the natural numbers. The system of rational numbers Q = (Q, +, , 0, 1)
is the minimal field that is an extension of the ring of the integers. (The terms ring
and field are defined in all details in the next volume.) The system of real numbers
R = (R, +, , 0, 1, >) is the minimal extension of the rationals that is continuous and
totally ordered. (For the definition of continuity, see volume IV, page 211, and volume V,
page 349.) Equivalently, the reals are the minimal extension of the rationals forming a
complete, totally strictly-Archimedean ordered field. This is the historical construction
or definition of the integer, rational and real numbers from the natural numbers. However, it is not the only one construction possible. The most beautiful definition of all these
types of numbers is the one discovered in 1969 by John Conway, and popularized by him,
Donald Knuth and Martin Kruskal.
A number is a sequence of bits.
The two bits are usually called up and down. Examples of numbers and the way to write
them are given in Figure 153.
The empty sequence is the number zero. A finite sequence of n ups is the integer number n, and a finite sequence of n downs is the integer n. Finite sequences of mixed ups
and downs give the dyadic rational numbers. Examples are 1, 2, 3, 7, 19/4, 37/256, etc.

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Ref. 239

numbers of muscles in the human body, of which about half are in the face
hairs on a healthy head
neurons in the brain of a grasshopper
light sensitive cells per retina (120 million rods and 6 million cones)
neurons in the human brain
blinks of the eye during a lifetime (about once every four seconds when
awake)
breaths taken during human life
heart beats during a human life
letters (base pairs) in haploid human DNA
cells in the human body
bacteria carried in the human body

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

300 106
3 109
3 109
10151
10161

possible positions of the 3 3 3 Rubiks Cube Ref. 238


possible positions of the 4 4 4 Rubik-like cube
possible positions of the 5 5 5 Rubik-like cube
possible games of chess
possible games of go
possible states in a personal computer

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

210 37 8! 12!
= 4.3 1019
5.8 1078
5.6 10117
c. 10200
c. 10800
7
c. 1010
Parts of us
600
150 000 50 000
900 000
126 106
1010 to 1011
500 106

Vol. IV, page 210

249

250

8 thought and l anguage


.
..

= simplest infinite
1=1111 ...
1111
111
3
1
11

11
1

2
1

1/2

111

1/4

1/2

3
111

smaller

/2

11

1
/4 1

1 1
1 1

2/3 + 2/3
1
1 1111

1
1 1
11
1

= 1/ = simplest infinitesimal

1
11

4/5
11 11 1 1
1
11 1 1 11111 11 ...
4
1111

earlier

1=1

1/3
1 11
1 1

3/2

2
11

1=1111

...

/2
2

11
1

(101)

* The surreal numbers do not form a set since they contain all ordinal numbers, which themselves do not
form a set, even though they of course contain sets. In short, ordinals and surreals are classes which are
larger than sets.

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They all have denominators with a power of 2. The other rational numbers are those that
end in an infinitely repeating string of ups and downs, such as the reals, the infinitesimals and simple infinite numbers. Longer countably infinite series give even more crazy
numbers.
The complete class of numbers that is defined by a sequence of bits is called the class
of surreal numbers.*
There is a second way to write surreal numbers. The first is the just mentioned sequence of bits. But in order to define addition and multiplication, another notation is
usually used, deduced from Figure 153. A surreal is defined as the earliest number of
all those between two series of earlier surreals, the left and the right series:

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 153 The surreal numbers in conventional and in bit notation.

= {a, b, c, ...|A, B, C, ...} with a, b, c, < < A, B, C .

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

3/4

1111

+4

2/3

1/4

11

8/3

3/2
1
1 1
3/4
11
1

11111

thought and l anguage

251

For example, we have


{0|} = 1 , {0, 1 |} = 2 , {|0} = 1 , {| 1, 0} = 2 , {0 |1} = 1/2 ,
{0 |1/2, 1/4} = 1 , {0, 1, 3/2, 25/16 | 41/16, 13/8, 7/4, 2} = 1 + 37/64 ,

(102)

showing that the finite surreals are the dyadic numbers m/2n (n and m being integers).
Given two surreals = {..., a, ...|..., A, ...} with a < < A and = {..., b, ...|..., B, ...} with
b < < B, addition is defined recursively, using earlier, already defined numbers, as
+ = {..., a + , ..., + b, ...|..., A + , ..., + B, ...} .

Challenge 261 s

Vol. IV, page 210

Challenge 263 s

A series of equal balls is packed in such a way


that the area of needed wrapping paper is
minimal. For small numbers of balls the linear
package, with all balls in one row, is the most
efficient. For which number of balls is the linear
package no longer a minimum?

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Ref. 240

These definitions allow one to write = 1/, and to talk about numbers such as , the
square root of infinity, about + 4, 1, 2, e and about other strange numbers shown
in Figure 153. However, the surreal numbers are not commonly used. More common is
one of their subsets.
The real numbers are those surreals whose decimal expansion is not larger than infinity and in addition, equate numbers such as 0.999999... and 1.000000..., as well as all
similar cases. In other words, the surreals distinguish the number 0.999999... from the
number 1, whereas the reals do not. Indeed, between these two surreal numbers there
are infinitely many other surreals. Can you name a few?
Reals are more useful for describing nature than surreals, first because they form a
set which the surreals do not and secondly because they allow the definition of integration. Other numbers defined with the help of reals, e.g. the complex numbers ,
the quaternions and a few more elaborate number systems, are presented in the next
volume.
To conclude, in physics it is usual to call numbers the elements of any set that is a
semi-ring (e.g. ), a ring (e.g. ) or a field (, , or ). Since numbers allow one
to compare magnitudes and thus to measure, these numbers play a central role in the
description of observations.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 262 s

(104)

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

This definition is used simply because it gives the same results as usual addition for integers and reals. Can you confirm this? By the way, addition is not always commutative. Are
you able to find the exceptions, and to find the definition for subtraction? Multiplication
is also defined recursively, namely by the expression
={..., a + b ab, ..., A + B AB, ...|
..., a + B aB, ..., A + b Ab, ...} .

Ref. 239

(103)

252

8 thought and l anguage

Why use mathematics?

Ref. 241

Ref. 242

Die Forderung der Mglichkeit der einfachen


Zeichen ist die Forderung der Bestimmtheit des
Sinnes.*
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 3.23

Die Stze der Mathematik sind Gleichungen,


also Scheinstze. Der Satz der Mathematik
drckt keinen Gedanken aus.***
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 6.2, 6.21

* The requirement that simple signs be possible is the requirement that sense be determinate.
** Physics is much too difficult for physicists.
*** The propositions of mathematics are equations, and therefore pseudo-propositions. A proposition of
mathematics does not express a thought.

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copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Is mathematics a language?

Die Physik ist fr Physiker viel zu schwer.**


David Hilbert

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Several well-known physicists have repeatedly asked why mathematics is so important.


For example, Niels Bohr is quoted as having said: We do not know why the language
of mathematics has been so effective in formulating those laws in their most succinct
form. Eugene Wigner wrote an often cited paper entitled The unreasonable effectiveness
of mathematics. At the start of science, many centuries earlier, Pythagoras and his contemporaries were so overwhelmed by the usefulness of numbers in describing nature,
that Pythagoras was able to organize a sect based on this connection. The members of
the inner circle of this sect were called learned people, in Greek mathematicians, from
the Greek teaching. This sect title then became the name of the modern profession.
These men forgot that numbers, as well as a large part of mathematics, are concepts
developed precisely with the aim of describing nature. Numbers and mathematical concepts were developed right from the start to provide as succinct a description as possible.
That is one consequence of mathematics being the science of symbolic necessities.
Perhaps we are being too dismissive. Perhaps these thinkers mainly wanted to express
their feeling of wonder when experiencing that language works, that thinking and our
brain works, and that life and nature are so beautiful. This would put the title question
nearer to the well-known statement by Albert Einstein: The most incomprehensible fact
about the universe is that it is comprehensible. Comprehension is another word for description, i.e., for classification. Obviously, any separable system is comprehensible, and
there is nothing strange about it. But is the universe separable? As long as is it described
as being made of particles and vacuum, this is the case.
We will find in the last part of this adventure that the basic assumption made at our
start is built on sand. The assumption that observations in nature can be counted, and
thus that nature is separable, is an approximation. The quoted incomprehensibility becomes amazement at the precision of this approximation. Nevertheless, Pythagoras sect,
which was based on the thought that everything in nature is numbers, was wrong. Like
so many beliefs, observation will show that it was wrong.

thought and l anguage

Ref. 243

Pythagorean triplets are integers that obey a2 + b2 = c 2 . Give at least ten examples. Then
show the following three properties: at least one number in a triplet is a multiple of 3;

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

* David Hilbert (1862 Knigsberg1943 Gttingen) was professor of mathematics in Gttingen and the
greatest mathematician of his time. He was a central figure to many parts of mathematics, and also played an
important role both in the birth of general relativity and of quantum theory. His textbooks are still in print.
His famous personal credo was: Wir mssen wissen, wir werden wissen. (We must know, we will know.)
His famous Paris lecture is published e.g. in Die Hilbertschen Probleme, Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft
Geest & Portig, 1983. The lecture galvanized all of mathematics. (Despite efforts and promises of similar
fame, nobody in the world had a similar overview of mathematics that allowed him or her to repeat the
feat in the year 2000.) In his last decade he suffered the persecution of the Nazi regime; the persecution
eliminated Gttingen from the list of important science universities, without recovering its place up to this
day.

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Vol. VI, page 103

Surely, mathematics is a vocabulary that helps us to talk with precision. Mathematics can
be seen as the exploration of all possible concepts that can be constructed from the two
fundamental bricks set and relation (or some alternative, but equivalent pair). Mathematics is the science of symbolic necessities. Rephrased again, mathematics is the exploration of all possible types of classifications. This explains its usefulness in all situations where complex, yet precise classifications of observations are necessary, such as in
physics.
However, mathematics cannot express everything that humans want to communicate,
such as wishes, ideas or feelings. Just try to express the fun of swimming using mathematics. Indeed, mathematics is the science of symbolic necessities; thus mathematics is not
a language, nor does it contain one. Mathematical concepts, being based on abstract sets
and relations, do not pertain to nature. Despite its beauty, mathematics does not allow
us to talk about nature or the observation of motion. Mathematics does not tell what to
say about nature; it does tell us how to say it.
In his famous 1900 lecture in Paris, the German mathematician David Hilbert* gave a
list of 23 great challenges facing mathematics. The sixth of Hilberts problems was to find
a mathematical treatment of the axioms of physics. Our adventure so far has shown that
physics started with a circular definition that has not yet been eliminated after 2500 years
of investigations: space-time is defined with the help of objects and objects are defined
with the help of space and time. Being based on a circular definition, physics is thus
not modelled after mathematics, even if many physicists and mathematicians, including
Hilbert, would like it to be so. Physicists must live with logical problems and must walk
on unsure ground in order to achieve progress. In fact, they have done so for 2500 years.
If physics were an axiomatic system, it would not contain circular definitions; on the
other hand, it would also cease to be a language and would cease to describe nature. We
will return to this issue in the last part of our adventure.
Curiosities and fun challenges about mathematics

Challenge 264 s

What is the largest number that can be written with four digits of 2 and no other sign?
And with four 4s?

Challenge 265 e

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Vol. I, page 378

253

254

8 thought and l anguage

at least one number in a triplet is a multiple of 4; at least one number in a triplet is a


multiple of 5.

Challenge 266 e

How many zeroes are there at the end of 1000! ?

Challenge 267 s

A mother is 21 years older than her child, and in 6 years the child will be 5 times younger
than the mother. Where is the father? This is the young mother puzzle.

Challenge 268 d

The number 1/n, when written in decimal notation, has a periodic sequence of digits.
The period is at most n 1 digits long, as for 1/7 = 0.142857 142857 1428.... Which other
numbers 1/n have periods of length n 1?

Challenge 269 s
Challenge 270 s

Felix Klein was a famous professor of mathematics at Gttingen University. There were
two types of mathematicians in his department: those who did research on whatever they
wanted and those for which Klein provided the topic of research. To which type did Klein
belong?
Obviously, this is a variation of another famous puzzle. A barber shaves all those
people who do not shave themselves. Does the barber shave himself?

Ref. 244

The digits 0 to 9 are found on keyboards in two different ways. Calculators and keyboards
have the 7 at the top left, whereas telephones and automatic teller machines have the digit
1 at the top left. The two standards, respectively by the International Standards Organization (ISO) and by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU, formerly CCITT),
evolved separately and have never managed to merge.

Leonhard Euler in his notebooks sometimes wrote down equations like


1
1 + 22 + 24 + 26 + 28 + ... = .
3
Challenge 272 d

(105)

Can this make sense?

In the history of recreational mathematics, several people have independently found

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copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 271 s

Everybody knows what a magic square is: a square array of numbers, in the simplest case
from 1 to 9, that are distributed in such a way that the sum of all rows, columns (and
possibly all diagonals) give the same sum. Can you write down the simplest 3 3 3
magic cube?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

thought and l anguage

255

15
13

14
9

10

8
4

6
11

12

5
2

1
18

16

7
19

17
3

F I G U R E 154 The only magic hexagon starting with the number


1 (up to reections and rotations).

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

from washers ( Donald Simanek).

Challenge 273 d

the well-known magic hexagon shown in Figure 154. The first discoverer was, in 1887,
Ernst von Hasselberg. The hexagon is called magic because all lines add up to the same
number, 38. Hasselberg also proved the almost incredible result that no other magic
hexagon exists. Can you confirm this?

Prime numbers are a favourite playground for mathematicians. A famous result on all

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Page
Ref. 236
216

In many flowers, numbers from the Fibonacci series 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 etc., appear.
Figure 162 gives a few examples. It is often suggested that this is a result of some deep
sense of beauty in nature. This is not the case, as Figure 155 shows. Mark a spot on a
surface, and put washers around it in by hand in a spiral manner; you will find the same
spirals that you find in many flowers, and thus, at their border, the same Fibonacci numbers. This argument by Donald Simanek shows that there is nothing deep, complicated
or even mysterious in the appearance of Fibonacci numbers in plants. For an opposite
point of view, see reference Ref. 236.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

F I G U R E 155 Fibonacci numbers and spirals

256

prime numbers pi states

8 thought and l anguage

(1
i=1

Challenge 274 s

1
6
)= 2

p2i

(106)

Can you imagine how this result is proven?

Challenge 275 e

Digits owe their name to the latin word digitum or finger. In times when writing on paper was expensive, it was already possible to count up to 9999 using the two hands, with
a system developed by Beda Venerabilis and popularized, for example, by Luca Pacioli.
Can you develop a similar system?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics


copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014
free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Chapter 9

CONC EPT S, LIES AND PAT TERNS OF


NATUR E

Ref. 245

Der Satz ist ein Bild der Wirklichkeit. Der Satz


ist ein Modell der Wirklichkeit, so wie wir sie
uns denken.**
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 4.01

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* The limits of my language are the limits of my world.


** A proposition is a picture of reality. A proposition is a model of reality as we imagine it.
*** All observations are about change. The various types of change are studied by the various sciences; they
are usually grouped in the three categories of human sciences, formal sciences and natural sciences. Among
the latter, the oldest are astronomy and metallurgy. Then, with the increase of curiosity in early antiquity,
came the natural science concerned with the topic of motion: physics. In the course of our walk it will
become clear that the unusual definition of physics as the study of change indeed covers the whole set of
topics studied in physics. In particular it includes the more common definition of physics as the study of
matter, its properties, its components and their interactions.
**** A particular, specific observation, i.e., a specific example of input shared by others, is called a fact, or
in other contexts, an event. A striking and regularly observed fact is called a phenomenon, and a general
observation made in many different situations is called a (physical) principle. (Often, when a concept is introduced that is used with other meaning in other fields, in this walk it is preceded by the qualifier physical
or mathematical in parentheses.) Actions performed towards the aim of collecting observations are called
experiments. The concept of experiment became established in the sixteenth century; in the evolution of a
child, it can best be compared to that activity that has the same aim of collecting experiences: play.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

n contrast to mathematics, physics does aim at being a language. But


t is ambitious: it aims to express everything, with complete precision, and,
n particular, all examples and possibilities of change.*** Like any language, physics
consists of concepts and sentences. In order to be able to express everything, it must
aim to use few words for a lot of facts.**** Physicists are essentially lazy people: they
try to minimize the effort in everything they do. The concepts in use today have been
optimized by the combined effort of many people to be as practical, i.e., as powerful as
possible. A concept is called powerful when it allows one to express in a compact way
a large amount of information, meaning that it can rapidly convey a large number of
details about observations.
General statements about many examples of motion are called rules or patterns. In the
past, it was often said that laws govern nature, using an old and inappropriate ideology.
A physical law is only a way of saying as much as possible with as few words as possible.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die


Grenzen meiner Welt.*
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 5.6

258

Page 261

9 concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

Are physical concepts discovered or created?

Das logische Bild der Tatsachen ist der


Gedanke.**
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 3

* It is better that people do not know how laws and sausages are made. Otherwise they would not sleep well
at night. Otto von Bismarck (18151898), Prussian Chancellor.
** A logical picture of facts is a thought.

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The title question is often rephrased as: are physical concepts free of beliefs, taste or personal choices? The question has been discussed so much that it even appears in Hollywood films. We give a short summary that can help you to distinguish honest from
dishonest teachers.
Creation of concepts, in contrast to their discovery, would imply free choice between
many alternative possibilities. The chosen alternative would then be due to the beliefs or
tastes used. In physics (in obvious contrast to other, more ideological fields of enquiry),
we know that different physical descriptions of observations are either equivalent or, in
the opposite case, imprecise or even wrong. A description of observations is thus essentially unique: any choices of concepts are only apparent. There is no real freedom in the
definition of physical concepts. In this property, physics is in strong contrast to artistic
activity.
If two different concepts can be used to describe the same aspect of observations, they
must be equivalent, even if the relation that leads to the equivalence is not immediately
clear. In fact, the requirement that people with different standpoints and observing the

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Es ist besser, da die Leute nicht wissen, wie


Gesetze und Wurst zustande kommen. Sonst
knnten sie nachts nicht ruhig schlafen.*
Otto von Bismarck

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

When saying laws govern nature we actually mean to say being lazy, we describe observations with patterns. Laws are the epitome of laziness. Formulating laws is pure sloth.
In fact, the correct expression is patterns describe nature.
Physicists have defined the laziness necessary for their field in much detail. In order
to become a master of laziness, we need to distinguish lazy patterns from those which
are not, such as lies, beliefs, statements that are not about observations, and statements
that are not about motion. We do this below.
The principle of extreme laziness is the origin, among others, of the use of numbers in
physics. Observables are often best described with the help of numbers, because numbers
allow easy and precise communication and classification. Length, velocity, angles, temperature, voltage or field strength are of this type. The notion of number, used in every
measurement, is constructed, often unconsciously, from the notions of set and relation,
as shown above. Apart from the notion of number, other concepts are regularly defined
to allow fast and compact communication of the laws of nature; all are abbreviation
tools. In this sense, the statement the level of the KacMoody algebra of the Lagrangian
of the heterotic superstring model is equal to one contains precise information, explainable to everybody; however, it would take dozens of pages to express it using only the
terms set and relation. In short, the precision common in physics results from its quest
for laziness.

concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

Ref. 227

* Anna Wierzbicka concludes that her research clearly indicates that semantic primitives are discovered, in
particular that they are deduced from the fundamentals of human experience, and not invented.
** Where belief starts, science ends.

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Wo der Glaube anfngt, hrt die Wissenschaft


auf.**
Ernst Haeckel, Natrliche Schpfungsgeschichte,
1879.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

same event deduce equivalent descriptions lies at the very basis of physics. It expresses
the requirement that observations are observer independent. In short, the strong requirement of viewpoint independence makes the free choice of concepts a logical impossibility.
The conclusion that concepts describing observations are discovered rather than created is also reached independently in the field of linguistics by the above-mentioned
research on semantic primitives,* in the field of psychology by the observations on the
formation of the concepts in the development of young children, and in the field of ethology by the observations of animal development, especially in the case of mammals. In
all three fields detailed observations have been made of how the interactions between an
individual and its environment lead to concepts, of which the most basic ones, such as
space, time, object or interaction, are common across the sexes, cultures, races and across
many animal species populating the world. Curiosity and the way that nature works leads
to the same concepts for all people and even the animals; the world offers only one possibility, without room for imagination. Imagining that physical concepts can be created
at your leisure is a belief or a useful exercise, but never successful.
Physical concepts are classifications of observations. The activity of classification itself
follows the patterns of nature; it is a mechanical process that machines can also perform.
This means that any distinction, i.e., any statement that A is different from B, is a theoryfree statement. No belief system is necessary to distinguish different entities in nature.
Cats and pigs can also do so. Physicists can be replaced by animals, even by machines.
Our mountain ascent will repeatedly confirm this point.
As already mentioned, the most popular physical concepts allow us to describe observations as succinctly and as accurately as possible. They are formed with the aim of
having the largest possible amount of understanding with the smallest possible amount
of effort. Both Occams razor the requirement not to introduce unnecessary concepts
and the drive for unification automatically reduce the number and the type of concepts
used in physics. In other words, the progress of physical science was and is based on a
programme that reduces the possible choice of concepts as drastically as possible.
In summary, we found that physical concepts are the same for everybody and are
free of beliefs and personal choices: they are first of all boring. Moreover, as they could
stem from machines instead of people, they are born of laziness. Despite these human
analogies not meant to be taken too seriously physical concepts are not created; they
are discovered. If a teacher tells you the opposite, he is lying.
Having handled the case of physical concepts, let us now turn to physical statements.
The situation is somewhat similar: physical statements must be lazy, arrogant and boring.
Let us see why.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Vol. VI, page 122

259

260

9 concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

TA B L E 24 The scientic method.

Normal description
Curiosity

Lobbyist description
Scientific method

1. look around a lot


2. dont believe anything told
3. choose something interesting and explore it
yourself
4. make up your own mind and describe precisely
what you saw
5. check if you can also describe similar situations in
the same way
6. increase the precision of observation until the
checks either fail or are complete
7. depending on the case, continue with step 4 or 1

1. interact with the world


2. forget unproven statements
3. observe
4. use reason, build hypothesis
5. analyse hypothesis
6. perform experiments to check
hypothesis
7. ask authority for more money

Physics is usually presented as an objective


science, but I notice that physics changes and
the world stays the same, so there must be
something subjective about physics.
Richard Bandler

* Grey, dear friend, is all theory, and green the golden tree of life. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (17491832),
the influential German poet.
** Several sciences have the term talk as part of their name, namely all those whose name finishes in -logy,
such as e.g. biology. The ending stems from ancient Greek and is deduced from meaning to say, to
talk. Physics as the science of motion could thus be called kinesiology from , meaning motion; but
for historical reasons this term has a different meaning, namely the study of human muscular activity. The
term physics is either derived from the Greek ( is understood) meaning (the art of) nature,
or from the title of Aristotle works meaning natural things. Both expressions are derived from
, meaning nature.

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Progressing through the study of motion reflects a young childs attitude towards life. The
progress follows the simple programme on the left of Table 24.
Adult scientists do not have much more to add, except the more fashionable terms
on the right, plus several specialized professions to make money from them. The experts
of step 7 are variously called lobbyists or fund raisers; instead of calling this program
curiosity, they call it the scientific method. They mostly talk. Physics being the talk
about motion,** and motion being a vast topic, many people specialize in this step.
The experts of step 6 are called experimental physicists or simply experimentalists, a
term derived from the Latin experiri, meaning to try out. Most of them are part of the
category graduate students. The experts of steps 5 and 4 are called theoretical physicists

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Grau, theurer Freund, ist alle Theorie,


Und grn des Lebens goldner Baum.*
J.W. v. Goethe, Faust.

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How do we find physical patterns and rules?

concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

261

or simply theoreticians.* This is a rather modern term; for example, the first professors of
theoretical physics were appointed around the start of the twentieth century. The term is
derived from the Greek meaning observation, contemplation. Finally, there are
the people who focus on steps 1 to 3, and who induce others to work on steps 4 to 6; they
are called geniuses.
Obviously an important point is hidden in step 6: how do all these people know
whether their checks fail? How do they recognize truth?

What is a lie?

Get your facts straight, and then you can distort


them at your leisure.
Mark Twain
The pure truth is always a lie.

Bert Hellinger

In most countries, every person must know what truth is, since in a law court for example, telling an untruth can lead to a prison sentence. And the courts are full of experts in
lie detection. **
In court, a lie is a statement that knowingly contrasts with observations.*** The truth
of a statement is thus checked by observation. The check itself is sometimes called the
proof of the statement. For law courts, and for physics, we thus have

Facts are observations shared with other people or machines.


Therefore,
A lie is a statement in contrast with facts.

* If you like theoretical physics, have a look at the refreshingly candid web page by Nobel Prize winner
Gerard t Hooft with the title How to become a good theoretical physicist. It can be found at www.phys.uu.
nl/~thooft/theorist.html.
** Some scholars who have spent most of their research career on lies and lying. A well-known example is
Paul Ekman, whose fascinating website at www.paulekman.com tells how to spot lies from the behaviour
of the person telling it.
*** Statements not yet checked are variously called speculations, conjectures, hypotheses, or wrongly simply theses. Statements that are in correspondence with observations are called correct or true; statements
that contrast with observations are called wrong or false.

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Lies are fun statements, because we can draw any imaginable conclusion from them. A
well-known discussion between two Cambridge professors early in the twentieth century
makes the point. McTaggart asked: If 2 + 2 = 5, how can you prove that I am the pope?
Godfrey Hardy: If 2 + 2 = 5, then 4 = 5; subtract 3; then 1 = 2; but McTaggart and
the pope are two; therefore McTaggart and the pope are one. As noted long ago, ex falso

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Truth is the correspondence with facts.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

All professions are conspiracies against laymen.


George Bernard Shaw

262

Ref. 199

9 concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

quodlibet; from what is wrong, anything imaginable can be deduced. Therefore, in our
mountain ascent we need to build on previously deduced results and our trip could not
be completed if we had a false statement somewhere in our chain of arguments.
Nevertheless, lying is such an important activity that one should learn to perform it
well in order to learn to discover it in others. The art of lying has three stages: the animal
stage, the child stage and the adult stage. Many animals have been shown to deceive their
kin. Children start lying just before their third birthday, by hiding experiences. Pysochological research has even shown that children who lack the ability to lie cannot complete
their personal development towards a healthy human being.
Adults are habitual liars. Many adults cheat on taxes. Others lie to cover up their
wrongdoings. If you ever lie in court, you better do it well; indeed, experience shows
that you might get away with many criminal activities. The worst examples of liars are
those violent contemporaries often politicians or intellectuals who claim that truth
does not exist.

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* The work of the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde (18431903), especially his concepts of imitation and
group mind, already connects to this fact.
** The implications of birth order on creativity in science and on acceptance of new ideas has been studied in
the fascinating book by Frank J. Sulloway, Born to Rebel Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative
Lives, Panthon Books, 1996. This exceptional book tells the result of a life-long study correlating the personal
situations in the families of thousands of people and their receptivity to about twenty revolutions in the
recent history. The book also includes a test in which the reader can deduce their own propensity to rebel,
on a scale from 0 to 100 %. Darwin scores 96 % on this scale.
*** In mathematics, true is usually specified as deducible or provable; this is in fact a special case of the
usual definition of truth, namely correspondence with facts, if one remembers that mathematics studies
the properties of classifications.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Since a lie is a statement in contrast with facts or shared observations a good lie is a
lie whose contrast with facts is hard to discover. Let us explore the art of good lies.
The first way of lying is to put an emphasis on the sharedness only. Populists and
polemics do this regularly. (Every foreigner is a danger for the values of our country.)
Since almost any imaginable opinion, however weird, is held by some group and thus
shared one can always claim it as true.* Unfortunately, it is no secret that ideas also get
shared because they are fashionable, imposed or opposed to somebody who is generally
disliked. Often a sibling in a family has this role remember Cassandra.** For a good lie
we thus need more than sharedness, more than intersubjectivity alone.
A good lie should be, like a true statement, really independent of the listener and the
observer and, in particular, independent of their age, their sex, their education, their civilization or the group to which they belong. For example, it is especially hard but not
impossible to lie with mathematics. The reason is that the basic concepts of mathematics, be they set, relation or number, are taken from observation and are intersubjective,
so that statements about them are easily checked. Therefore, good lies avoid mathematics.***
Thirdly, a good lie should avoid statements about observations and use interpretations instead. For example, some people like to talk about other universes, which implies
talking about fantasies, not about observations. However, a really good lie has to avoid

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

What is a good lie?

concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

Vol. IV, page 97

Ref. 246

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* It is often difficult or tedious to verify statements concerning the past, and the difficulty increases with
the distance in time. That is why people can insist on the occurrence of events which are supposed to be
exceptions to the patterns of nature (miracles). Since the advent of rapid means of communication these
checks are becoming increasingly easy, and no miracles are left over. This can be seen in Lourdes in France,
where even though today the number of visitors is much higher than in the past, no miracles have been seen
in decades. (In fact there is one exception that has with several witnesses. In 1998, a man in a wheelchair
was pushed into the holy water. When he came out again, miraculously, his wheelchair had new tires.)
In fact, all modern so-called miracles are kept alive only by consciously eschewing checks, such as the
supposed yearly liquefaction of blood in Napoli, the milk supposedly drunk by statues in temples, the supposed healers in television evangelism, etc. Most miracles only remain because many organizations make
money out of the difficulty of falsifying specific statements. For example, when the British princess Diana

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

to make statements which are meaningless; the most destructive comment that can be
made about a statement is the one used by the great Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli:
That is not even wrong.
Fourthly, a good lie avoids talking about observations, but focuses on imagination.
Only truth needs to be empirical; speculative statements differ from truth by not caring
about observations. If you want to lie well even with empirical statements, you need to
pay attention. There are two types of empirical statements: specific statements and universal statements. For example, On the 31st of August 1960 I saw a green swan swimming on
the northern shore of the lake of Varese is specific, whereas All ravens are black is universal, since it contains the term all. There is a well-known difference between the two,
which is important for lying well: specific statements cannot be falsified, they are only
verifiable, and universal statements cannot be verified, they are only falsifiable. Why is
this so?
Universal statements, such as the speed of light is constant, cannot be tested for all
possible cases. (Note that if they could, they would not be universal statements, but just
a list of specific ones.) However, they can be reversed by a counter-example. Another
example of the universal type is: Apples fall upwards. Since it is falsified by an observation conducted by Newton several centuries ago, or by everyday experience, it qualifies
as an (easily detectable) lie. In general therefore, lying by stating the opposite of a theory
is usually unsuccessful. If somebody insists on doing so, the lie becomes a superstition,
a belief, a prejudice or a doctrine. These are the low points in the art of lying. A famous
case of insistence on a lie is that of the colleagues of Galileo, who are said to have refused
to look through his telescope to be convinced that Jupiter has moons, an observation
that would have shaken their belief that everything turns around the Earth. Obviously
these astronomers were amateurs in the art of lying. A good universal lie is one whose
counter-example is not so easily spotted.
There should be no insistence on lies in physics. Unfortunately, classical physics is full
of lies. We will dispel them during the rest of our walk.
Lying by giving specific instead of universal statements is much easier. (I cant remember.) Even a specific statement such as yesterday the Moon was green, cubic and
smelled of cheese can never be completely falsified: there is no way to show with absolute certainty that this is wrong. The only thing that we can do is to check whether the
statement is compatible with other observations, such as whether the different shape affected the tides as expected, whether the smell can be found in air collected that day, etc.
A good specific lie is thus not in evident contrast with other observations.*

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Ref. 247

263

264

9 concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014


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died in a car crash in 1997, even though the events were investigated in extreme detail, the scandal press
could go on almost without end about the mysteries of the accident.
* To clarify the vocabulary usage of this text: religion is spirituality plus a varying degree of beliefs and power
abuse. The mixture depends on each persons history, background and environment. Spirituality is the open
participation in the whole of nature. Most, maybe all, people with a passion for physics are spiritual. Most
are not religious.
** In other words, a set of not yet falsified patterns of observations on the same topic is called a (physical)
theory. The term theory will always be used in this sense in this walk, i.e., with the meaning set of correct
general statements. This use results from its Greek origin: theoria means observation; its original meaning,

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Incidentally, universal and specific statements are connected: the opposite of a universal statement is always a specific statement, and vice versa. For example, the opposite of
the general statement apples fall upwards, namely some apples fall downwards, is specific. Similarly, the specific statement the Moon is made of green cheese is in opposition
to the universal statement the Moon is solid for millions of years and has almost no smell
or atmosphere.
In other words, law courts and philosophers disagree. Law courts have no problem
with calling theories true, and specific statements lies. Many philosophers avoid this. For
example, the statement ill-tempered gaseous vertebrates do not exist is a statement of
the universal type. If a universal statement is in agreement with observations, and if it
is falsifiable, law courts call it true. The opposite, namely the statement: ill-tempered
gaseous vertebrates do exist, is of the specific type, since it means Person X has observed
an ill-tempered gaseous vertebrate in some place Y at some time Z. To verify this, we
need a record of the event. If such a record, for example a photographs or testimony
does not exist, and if the statement can be falsified by other observations, law courts
call the specific statement a lie. Even though these are the rules for everyday life and for
the law, there is no agreement among philosophers and scientists that this is acceptable.
Why? Intellectuals are a careful lot, because many of them have lost their lives as a result
of exposing lies too openly.
In short, specific lies, like all specific statements, can never be falsified with certainty.
This is what makes them so popular. Children learn specific lies first. (I havent eaten
the jam.) General lies, like all general statements, can always be corroborated by examples. This is the reason for the success of ideologies. But the criteria for recognizing lies,
even general lies, have become so commonplace that beliefs and lies try to keep up with
them. It became fashionable to use expressions such as scientific fact there are no nonscientific facts , or scientifically proven observations cannot be proven otherwise
and similar empty phrases. These are not good lies; whenever we encounter a sentence
beginning with science says ... or science and religion do ... we just need to replace science by knowledge or experience to check whether such a sentence are to be taken
seriously or not.*
Lies differ from true statements in their emotional aspect. Specific statements are usually boring and fragile, whereas specific lies are often sensational and violent. In contrast,
general statements are often daring and fragile whereas general lies are usually boring
and violent. The truth is fragile. True statements require the author to stick his neck out
to criticism. Researchers know that if one doesnt stick the neck out, it cant be an observation or a theory. (A theory is another name for one or several connected, not yet
falsified universal statements about observations.)** Telling the truth does make vulner-

concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

265

passionate and emphatic contemplation, summarizes the whole of physics in a single word. (Theory, like
theatre, is formed from the root , meaning the act of contemplating.) Sometimes, however, the term
theory is used being confused with hypothesis with the meaning of conjecture, as in your theory
is wrong, sometimes with the meaning of model, as in ChernSimons theory and sometimes with the
meaning of standard procedure, as in perturbation theory. These incorrect uses are avoided here. To bring
the issue to a point: the theory of evolution is not a conjecture, but a set of correct statements based on
observation.

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Democritus

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Truth is an abyss.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

able. For this reason, theories are often daring, arrogant or provoking; at the same time
they have to be fragile and vulnerable. For many men, theories thus resemble what they
think about women. Darwins The origin of species illustrates the stark contrast between
the numerous boring and solid facts that Darwin collected and the daring theory that he
deduced. Boredom of facts is a sign of truth.
In contrast, the witch-hunters propagating creationism or so-called intelligent design are examples of liars. The specific lies they propagate, such as the world was created in October 4004 bce, are sensational, whereas the general lies they propagate, such
as there have not been big changes in the past, are boring. This is in full contrast with
common sense. Moreover, lies, in contrast to true statements, make people violent. The
worse the lie, the more violent the people. This connection can be observed regularly in
the news. In other words, creationism and intelligent design are not only lies, they are
bad lies. A good general lie, like a good physical theory, seems crazy and seems vulnerable, such as people have free will. A good specific lie is boring, such as this looks like
bread, but for the next ten minutes it is not. Good lies do not induce violence. Feelings
can thus be a criterion to judge the quality of lies, if we pay careful attention to the type
of statement. A number of common lies are discussed later in this chapter.
An important aspect of any good lie is to make as few public statements as possible, so
that critics can check as little as possible. (For anybody sending corrections of mistakes
in this text, I provide a small reward.) To detect lies, public scrutiny is important, though
not always reliable. Sometimes, even scientists make statements which are not based on
observations. However, a good lie is always well prepared and told on purpose; accidental lies are frowned upon by experts. Examples of good lies in science are aether, UFOs,
creation science, or cold fusion. Sometimes it took many decades to detect the lies in
these domains.
To sum up, the central point of the art of lying without being caught is simple: do
not divulge details. Be vague. All the methods used to verify a statement ask for details,
for precision. For any statement, its degree of precision allows one to gauge the degree
to which the author is sticking his neck out. The more precision that is demanded, the
weaker a statement becomes, and the more likely a fault will be found, if there is one. This
is the main reason that we chose an increase in precision as a guide for our mountain
ascent: we want to avoid lies completely. By the way, the same method is used in criminal
trials. To discover the truth, investigators typically ask all the witnesses a large number
of questions, allowing as many details as possible come to light. When sufficient details
are collected, and the precision is high enough, the situation becomes clear. Telling good
lies is much more difficult than telling the truth; it requires an excellent imagination.

266

Ref. 249

9 concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

[Absolute truth:] It is what scientists say it is


when they come to the end of their labors.
Charles Peirce

Is this statement true? A bit about nonsense

There are three types of people: those who


believe in Father Christmas, those who do not
believe in Father Christmas, and those who are
Father Christmas.
Anonymous
Truth is a rhetorical concept.

Paul Feyerabend

Not all statements can be categorized as true or false. There is a third option: statements
can simply make no sense. There are even such statements in mathematics, where they
are called undecidable. However, undecidable and nonsense is really the same thing! An
example is the continuum hypothesis. This hypothesis is undecidable because it makes
a statement that depends on the precise meaning of the term set; in standard mathematical usage the term is not defined sufficiently precisely so that a truth value can be
assigned to the continuum hypothesis. In short, statements can be undecidable because
the concepts contained in them are not sharply defined.
Statements can also be undecidable for other reasons. Phrases such as This statement
is not true illustrate the situation. The phrase is undecidable because it references to itself.
Kurt Gdel* has even devised a general way of constructing such undecidable statements
in the domain of logic and mathematics. The different variations of these self-referential
statements, especially popular both in the field of logic and computer science, have captured a large public.** Similarly undecidable statements can be constructed with terms
such as calculable, provable and deducible.
In fact, self-referential statements are undecidable because they are meaningless. If
the usual definition of true, namely corresponding to facts, is substituted into the sentence This statement is not true, we quickly see that it has no meaningful content. The
most famous meaningless sentence of them all was constructed by the linguist Noam
Chomsky:

Ref. 207

It is often used as an example for the language processing properties of the brain, but
nobody sensible elevates it to the status of a paradox and writes philosophical discussions
* Kurt Gdel (b. 1906 Brnn, d. 1978 Princeton), famous Austrian logician.
** A general introduction is given in the beautiful books by R aymond Smullyan: Satan, Cantor and
Infinity and Other Mind-boggling Puzzles, Knopf, 1992; What is the Name of This Book? The Riddle of Dracula
and Other Logical Puzzles, Touchstone, 1986, and The Lady or the Tiger? And Other Puzzles, Times Books,
1982. Also definitions can have no content, such as David Hilberts smallest number that has not been
mentioned this century or the smallest sequence of numbers that is described by more signs than this
sentence.

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Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 250

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible


thing.
Hypatia of Alexandria (c. 355415)

concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

267

about it. To do that with the title of this section is a similar waste of energy.
The main reason for the popular success of self-reference is the difficulty in perceiving
the lack of meaning.* A good example is the statement:
This statement is false or you are an angel.
Challenge 277 s

Curiosities and fun challenges about lies and nonsense

Ref. 252

A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he


wishes to be true he generally believes to be
true.
Demosthenes, 349 bce.

Quator vero sunt maxima comprehendendae


veritatis offendicula, quae omnem
quemcumque sapientem impediunt, et vix
aliquem permittunt ad verum titulum
sapientiae pervenire: videlicet fragilis et
indignae auctoritatis exemplum, consuetudinis
diurnitatis, vulgi sensus imperiti, et propriae
ignorantiae occultatio cum ostentatione
sapientiae apparentis.****
Roger Bacon, Opus majus, 1267.

Ref. 251
Challenge 276 s
Challenge 278 s

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* A well-known victim of this difficulty is Paulus of Tarsus. The paradox of the Cretan poet Epimenedes (6th
century bce) who said All Cretans lie is too difficult for the notoriously humour-impaired Paulus, who in
his letter to Titus (chapter 1, verses 12 and 13, in the christian bible) calls Epimenedes a prophet, adds some
racist comments, and states that this testimony is true. But wait! There is a final twist to this story. The
statement All Cretans lie is not a paradox at all; a truth value can actually be ascribed to it, because the
statement is not really self-referential. Can you confirm this? The only genuine paradox is I am lying, to
which it is indeed impossible to ascribe a truth value.
** Why are circular statements, like those of Galilean physics, not self-referential?
*** It is quite impossible for a proposition to state that it itself is true.
**** There are four stumbling blocks to truth and knowledge: weak and unworthy authority, custom, popular prejudice, and the concealment of ignorance with apparent knowledge.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ein Satz kann unmglich von sich selbst


aussagen, da er wahr ist.***
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 4.442

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

We can actually deduce from it that you are an angel. Can you see how? If you want,
you can change the second half and get even more interesting statements. Such examples
show that statements referring to themselves have to be treated with great care when
under investigation. In short, whenever you meet somebody who tries to use the selfreferential construction by Kurt Gdel to deduce another statement, take a step back, or
better, a few more. Self-reference, especially the type defined by Gdel, is a hard but common path especially amongst wannabe-intellectuals to think, tell and write nonsense.
Nothing useful can be deduced from nonsense. Well, not entirely; it does help to meet
psychiatrists on a regular basis.
In physics, in the other natural sciences, and in legal trials these problems do not
emerge, because self-referential statements are not used.** In fact, the work of logicians
confirms, often rather spectacularly, that there is no way to extend the term truth beyond
the definition of correspondence with facts.

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9 concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

Es ist ja nicht alles, was ich den Brgern sage,


gelogen.*
Konrad Adenauer, 1962, West German
Chancellor.

Some lies are entertaining and funny and are better called jokes , some are signs of
psychic disturbance, and some are made with criminal intent. Some statements are not
lies, but simply nonsense. Have fun distinguishing them.

Challenge 279 e

During a church sermon, a man fell asleep. He dreamt about the French revolution: he
was being brought to the guillotine. At that moment, his wife noticed that he was sleeping.
In the same moment in which the man dreamt that the knife was hitting him, his wife
gave him a tap on his neck with her fan. The shock instantly killed the man. Is this story
true or false?

A well-known bad lie: Yesterday I drowned.

Challenge 280 s

Starting in the 1990s, so-called crop circles were produced by people walking with stilts,
a piece of wood and some rope into fields of crops. Nevertheless, many pretended and
even more believed that these circles were made by extraterrestrial beings. Is this a good
or a bad lie? Can you find some reasons why this is impossible?

Challenge 281 e

Often one hears or reads statements like: mind (or spirit or soul) is stronger than matter.
Beware of anybody who says this; he wants something from you. Can you show that such
statements are all and always wrong?

Challenge 282 s

In certain countries, two lies were particularly frequent in the early twenty-first century.
The first: global warming does not exist. The second: global warming is not due to human
causes. Are these good or bad lies?

Challenge 284 s

A famous mixture of hoax and belief premises that the Earth was created about six thousand years ago. (Some believers even use this lie as justification for violence against nonbelievers.) Can you explain why the number is wrong?
* Indeed, not everything that I tell the people is a lie.

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Challenge 283 s

Sometimes it is heard that a person whose skin is completely covered with finest metal
powder will die, due to the impossibility of the skin to breathe. Can you show from you
own observation that this is wrong?

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Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

269

Challenge 285 s

A famous provocation: the world has been created last Saturday. Can you decide whether
this is wrong?

Hundreds of hoaxes are found on the www.museumofhoaxes.com website. It gives an


excellent introduction into the art of lying; of course it exposes only those who have been
caught. Enjoy the science stories, especially those about archaeology. (Several other sites
with similar content can be found on the internet.)

Challenge 286 e

In the 1990s, many so-called healers in the Philippines earned large amounts of money
by suggesting patients that they were able to extract objects from their bodies without
operating. Why is this not possible? (For more information on health lies, see the www.
quackwatch.com website.)

Challenge 287 e

Since the 1980s, people have claimed that it is possible to acquire knowledge simply from
somebody 1000 km away, without any communication between the two people. However,
the assumed morphogenetic fields cannot exist. Why not?

This statement has been translated from French into English. Is the statement true, false
or neither?

Challenge 289 s

Aeroplanes have no seat row 13. Many tall hotels have no floor 13. What is the lie behind
this habit? What is the truth behind it?

Challenge 290 s

For about a thousand years, certain people pretend that they have been stigmatized, i.e.,
that they have miraculously suffered wounds that are similar to those of Jesuss crucifixion. How can one prove by a one-second observation that all of these people, without
exception, produced the wounds by themselves?

In the middle age and in antiquity, people believed in the flat Earth. This is a famous lie
that is rarely questioned. The historian Reinhard Krger has shown that the lie is most
of all due to the writers Thomas Paine (1794) and Washington Irving (1928). Fact is that

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copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 288 s

It is claimed that a Fire Brigade building in a city in the US hosts a light bulb that has
been burning without interruption since 1901 (at least this was the case in 2005). Can
this be true? Hundreds of such stories, often called urban legends, can be found on the
www.snopes.com website. However, some of the stories are not urban legends, but true,
as the site shows.

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9 concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

since Aristotle, everybody believed in a spherical Earth.

Challenge 291 s

Is the term multiverse, a claimed opposite to universe, a lie or a belief?

The following is not a lie. A good way to suppress curiosity in children is used in many
environments: let the child watch television whenever it wants. Do it for a few weeks and
you will not recognize the child any more. Do it for a few years, and its curiosity will not
come back at all.

Challenge 292 e

How would you show that Earth rays are a lie?

How would you show that the statement the laws of nature could change any time is a
lie?

Challenge 294 e

I can generate energy from the vacuum. Show that this is a lie.

Challenge 295 e

Not everything that exists can be measured. Show that this frequent statement is a lie.

Not everything is known. This statement is quite interesting: modern physics indeed
claims the opposite in many domains. For example, all forms of energy are known; so
are all forms of moving entities. In short, even though this statement is correct indeed,
not everything is known it is often used by liars. Be careful when you hear it; if the
statement is made without evidence, it is made by a crook.

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Challenge 296 e

Here is a lie that uses mathematics, from a journalist: Your university exams treat women
applicants worse than men; your statistics show that only 41 % of all female, but 57% of
all male applicants are admitted. The university is small and has only two faculties; so it
checks its numbers.
Faculty 1 admitted 60% of all males (60 of 100 applicants) and 65% of all applicant
females (13 of 20 applicants). Faculty 2 admitted 30% of all males (3 of 10 applicants) and
32% of all females (16 of 50 applicants).
In total, the university thus admitted 63 of 110 male applicants (or 57%) and 29 of 70
female applicants (or 41%). In other words, even though in each faculty the percentage
of admitted females was higher, the total admission percentage for females was lower.
Why? In fact, this is a true story; in this version, the numbers are simplified, to make the
situation as clear as possible. But a large university once got in trouble with journalists
in this way, despite preferring women in each of its departments. Some journalists are
excellent liars.

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Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 293 s

observations

271

A domain in which lies are common is the food industry. It is now possible to buy artificial eggs, artificial tomato, or artificial shrimps. Many bread products contain cysteine;
for many decades, cysteine was extracted from human hair! In Europe, most food products to not tell the country of origin or the content of genetic engineering.

A famous lie: genetically engineered crops are good for the food supply. In fact, they
increase the use of pesticides, have reduced fertility, cost more and increased food problems. Similar effects are due to biofuels.

The British Broadcasting Corporation is famous for its April 1st pranks. One of the best
ever is its documentary on flying penguins. Search for it on the internet.

observations

The collection of a large number of true statements about a type of observations, i.e.,
of a large number of facts, is called knowledge. Where the domain of observations is
sufficiently extended, one speaks of a science. A scientist is thus somebody who collects
knowledge.* We found above that an observation is classified input into the memory of
several people. Since there is motion all around, to describe all these observations is a
mammoth task. As for every large task, to a large extent the use of appropriate tools determines the degree of success that can be achieved. These tools, in physics and in all
* The term scientist is a misnomer peculiar to the English language. Properly speaking, a scientist is a
follower of scientism, an extremist philosophical school that tried to resolve all problems through science.
For this reason, some religious sects have the term in their name. Since the English language did not have a
shorter term to designate scientific persons, as they used to be called, the term scientist started to appear in
the United States, from the eighteenth century onwards. Nowadays the term is used in all English-speaking
countries but not outside them, fortunately.

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Ref. 253

Knowledge is a sophisticated statement of


ignorance.
Attributed to Karl Popper

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Challenge 297 e

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Physicists have helped to reveal that many common statements are lies. Examples are:
astrology holds - creation did occur - perpetuum mobiles are possible - vacuum
is an energy source - lightning is thrown by Zeus - energy speeds faster than light
exist - telepathy is possible - more than three spatial dimensions exist - there are
things that cannot be measured - miracles contradict the laws or rules of nature - exceptions to the rules of nature exist - quantum theory implies many worlds - there
are no measurement limits - infinite quantities exist in nature - supersymmetry is
valid - particles are membranes - a multiverse exists - mind is stronger than matter.
Other lies, including many funny prejudices and beliefs, are mentioned throughout our
adventure.

272

9 concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

other sciences, fall in three groups: tools for the collection of observations, tools to communicate observations and tools to communicate relations between observations. The
latter group has been already discussed in the section on language and on mathematics.
We just touch on the other two.
Have enough observations been recorded?

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Ref. 254

* Julian Seymour Schwinger (19181994), US-American child prodigy. He was famous for his clear thinking and his excellent lectures. He worked on waveguides and synchroton radiation, made contributions to
nuclear physics and developed quantum electrodynamics. For the latter he received the 1965 Nobel Prize
in Physics together with Tomonaga and Feynman. He was a thesis advisor to many famous physicists and
wrote several excellent and influential textbooks. Nevertheless, at the end of his life, he became strangely
interested in a hoax turned sour: cold fusion.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 257

Physics is an experimental science; it rests on the collection of observations. To realize


this task effectively, all sorts of instruments, i.e., tools that facilitate observations, have
been developed and built. Microscopes, telescopes, oscilloscopes, as well as thermometers, hygrometers, manometers, pyrometers, spectrometers amongst others are familiar
examples. The precision of many of these tools is being continuously improved even today; their production is a sizeable part of modern industrial activity, examples being
electrical measuring apparatus and diagnostic tools for medicine, chemistry and biology.
Instruments can be as small as a tip of a few tungsten atoms to produce an electron beam
of a few volts, and as large as 27 km in circumference, producing an electron beam with
more than 100 GV effective accelerating voltage. Instruments have been built that contain and measure the coldest known matter in the universe. Other instruments can measure length variations of far less than a proton diameter over kilometre long distances.
Instruments have been put deep inside the Earth, on the Moon, on several planets, and
have been sent outside the solar system.
In this walk, instruments are not described; many good textbooks on this topic are
available. Most observations collected by instruments are not mentioned here. The most
important results in physics are recorded in standard publications, such as the Landolt
Brnstein series and the physics journals (Appendix E gives a general overview of information sources).
Will there be significant new future observations in the domain of the fundamentals of motion? At present, in this specific domain, even though the number of physicists
and publications is at an all-time high, the number of new experimental discoveries has
been steadily diminishing for many years and is now fairly small. The sophistication and
investment necessary to obtain new results has become extremely high. In many cases,
measuring instruments have reached the limits of technology, of budgets or even those
of nature. The number of new experiments that produce results showing no deviation
from theoretical predictions is increasing steadily. The number of historical papers that
try to enliven dull or stalled fields of enquiry are increasing. Claims of new effects which
turn out to be false, due to measurement errors, self-deceit or even fraud have become

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 255, Ref. 256

Every generation is inclined to define the end


of physics as coincident with the end of their
scientific contributions.
Julian Schwinger*

observations

273

so frequent that scepticism has become a common response. Although in many domains
of science, including physics, discoveries are still expected, on the fundamentals of motion the arguments just presented seem to show that new observations are only a remote
possibility. The task of collecting observations on the foundations of motion (though not
on other topics of physics) seems to be complete. Indeed, most observations described
here were obtained before the end of the twentieth century. We are not too early with
our walk.
Ref. 258

Measure what is measurable; make measurable


what is not.
Wrongly attributed to Galileo.

Are all physical observables known?

Scientists have odious manners, except when


you prop up their theory; then you can borrow
money from them.
Mark Twain

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* All mathematical symbols used in this walk, together with the alphabets from which they are taken, are
listed in Appendix A on notation. They follow international standards whenever they are defined. The standard symbols of the physical quantities, as defined by the International Standards Organization (ISO), the
International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) and the International Union of Pure and Applied
Chemistry (IUPAC), can be found for example in the bible, i.e., the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics,

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

The most practical way to communicate observations was developed a long time ago:
by measurements. A measurement allows effective communication of an observation to
other times and places. This is not always as trivial as it sounds; for example, in the Middle Ages people were unable to compare precisely the coldness of the winters of two
different years! The invention of the thermometer provided a reliable solution to this requirement. A measurement is thus the classification of an observation into a standard set
of observations; to put it simply, a measurement is a comparison with a standard. This
definition of a measurement is precise and practical, and has therefore been universally
adopted. For example, when the length of a house is measured, this aspect of the house
is classified into a certain set of standard lengths, namely the set of lengths defined by
multiples of a unit. A unit is the abstract name of the standard for a certain observable.
Numbers and units allow the most precise and most effective communication of measurement results.
For all measurable quantities, practical standard units and measurement methods
have been defined; the main ones are listed and defined in Appendix A. All units are
derived from a few fundamental ones; this is ultimately due to our limited number of
senses: length, time and mass are related to sight, hearing and touch. Our limited number of senses is, in turn, due to the small number of observables of nature.
We call observables the different measurable aspects of a system. Most observables,
such as size, speed, position, etc. can be described by numbers, and in this case they are
quantities, i.e., multiples of some standard unit. Observables are usually abbreviated by
(mathematical) symbols, usually letters from some alphabet. For example, the symbol c
commonly specifies the velocity of light. For most observables, standard symbols have
been defined by international bodies.* The symbols for the observables that describe the

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274

9 concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

CRC Press, 1992.


* The last, the katal or mol/s, was introduced in 1999. Physical units are presented in Appendix A.
** Is it possible to talk about observations at all? It is many a philosophers hobby to discuss whether there
actually is an example for an Elementarsatz an atomic fact mentioned by Wittgenstein in his Tractatus.
There seems to be at least one that fits: Differences exist. It is a simple sentence; in the final part of our walk,
it will play a central role.

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An observation is an interaction with some part of nature leading to the production of


a record, such as a memory in the brain, data on a tape, ink on paper, or any other fixed
pattern applied to a support. The necessary irreversible interaction process is often called

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Do observations take time?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

state of an object are also called variables. Variables on which other observables depend
are often called parameters. (Remember: a parameter is a variable constant.) For example, the speed of light is a constant, the position a variable, the temperature is often a
parameter, on which the length of an object, for example, can depend. Note that not all
observables are quantities; in particular, parities are not multiples of any unit.
Today the task of defining tools for the communication of observations can be considered complete. (For quantities, this is surely correct; for parity-type observables there
could be a few examples to be discovered.) This is a simple and strong statement. Even
the BIPM, the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures, has stopped adding new units.*
As a note, the greatness of a physicist can be ranked by the number of observables he
has introduced. Even a great scientist such as Einstein, who discovered many laws of nature, only introduced one new observable, namely the metric tensor for the description
of gravity. Following this criterion as well as several others Maxwell is the most important physicist, having introduced electric and magnetic fields, the vector potential, and
several other material dependent observables. For Heisenberg, Dirac and Schrdinger,
the wave function describing electron motion could be counted as half an observable (as
it is a quantity necessary to calculate measurement results, but not itself an observable).
Incidentally, even the introduction of any term that is taken up by others is a rare event;
gas, entropy and only a few others are such examples. It has always been much more
difficult to discover an observable than to discover a law; usually, observables are developed by many people cooperating together. Indeed, many laws bear peoples names, but
almost no observables.
If the list of observables necessary to describe nature is complete, does this mean that
all the patterns or rules of nature are known? No; in the history of physics, observables
were usually defined and measured long before the precise rules connecting them were
found. For example, all observables used in the description of motion itself, such as time,
position and its derivatives, momentum, energy and all the thermodynamic quantities,
were defined before or during the nineteenth century, whereas the most precise versions
of the patterns or laws of nature connecting them, special relativity and non-equilibrium
thermodynamics, have been found only in the twentieth century. The same is true for all
observables connected to electromagnetic interaction. The corresponding patterns of nature, quantum electrodynamics, was discovered long after the corresponding observables.
The observables that were discovered last were the fields of the strong and the weak nuclear interactions. Also, in this case, the patterns of nature were formulated much later.**

observations

275

writing the record. Obviously, writing takes a certain amount of time; zero interaction
time would give no record at all. Therefore any recording device, including our brain,
always records some time average of the observation, however short it may be.
What we call a fixed image, be it a mental image or a photograph, is always the time
average of a moving situation. Without time averaging, we would have no fixed memories. On the other hand, any time averaging introduces a blur that hides certain details;
and in our quest for precision, at a certain moment, these details are bound to become
important. The discovery of these details will begin in the upcoming part of the walk, the
volume that explores quantum theory. In the final part of our mountain ascent we will
discover that there is a shortest possible averaging time. Observations of that short duration show so many details that even the distinction between particles and empty space
is lost. In contrast, our concepts of everyday life appear only after relatively long time
averages. The search for an average-free description of nature is one of the big challenges
of our adventure.

Nur gesetzmige Zusammenhnge sind


denkbar.*
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 6.361

There is a tradition of opposition between


adherents of induction and of deduction. In my
view it would be just as sensible for the two
ends of a worm to quarrel.
Alfred North Whitehead

* Only connexions that are subject to law are thinkable.

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Induction is the usual term used for the act of making, from a small and finite number
of experiments, general conclusions about the outcome of all possible experiments performed in other places, or at other times. In a sense, it is the technical term for sticking
out ones neck, which is necessary in every scientific statement. Induction has been a major topic of discussion for science commentators. Frequently one finds the remark that
knowledge in general, and physics in particular, relies on induction for its statements.
According to some, induction is a type of hidden belief that underlies all sciences but at
the same time contrasts with them.
To avoid wasting energy, we make only a few remarks. The first can be deduced from
a simple experiment. Try to convince a critic of induction to put their hand into a fire.
Nobody who honestly calls induction a belief should conclude from a few unfortunate
experiences in the past that such an act would also be dangerous in the future... In short,
somehow induction works.
A second point is that physical universal statements are always openly stated; they are
never hidden. The refusal to put ones hand into a fire is a consequence of the invariance
of observations under time and space translations. Indeed, general statements of this type
form the very basis of physics. However, no physical statement is a belief only because it
is universal; it always remains open to experimental checks. Physical induction is not a
hidden method of argumentation, it is an explicit part of experimental statements. In fact,
the complete list of inductive statements used in physics is well known. These statements

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Vol. I, page 247

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Is induction a problem in physics?

276

Page 238
Ref. 253
Challenge 298 s

9 concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

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In the progress of physics, the exception often


turned out to be the general case.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

are so important that they have been given a special name: they are called symmetries. The
list of all known symmetries of nature is the candidate list for all inductive statements
used in physics.
Perhaps the best argument for the use of induction is that there is no way to avoid it
when one is thinking. There is no way to think, to talk or to remember without using
concepts, i.e., without assuming that most objects or entities have the same properties
over time. There is also no way to communicate with others without assuming that the
observations made from the others viewpoint are similar to ones own. There is no way
to think without symmetry and induction. Indeed, the concepts related to symmetry and
induction, such as space and time, belong to the fundamental concepts of language. The
only sentences which do not use induction, the sentences of logic, do not have any content (Tractatus, 6.11). Indeed, without induction, we cannot classify observations at all!
Evolution has given us memory and a brain because induction works. To criticize induction is not to criticize natural sciences, it is to criticize the use of thought in general.
We should never take too seriously people who themselves do what they criticize in others; sporadically pointing out the ridicule of this endeavour is just the right amount of
attention they deserve.
The topic could be concluded here, were it not for some interesting developments in
modern physics that put two additional nails in the coffin of arguments against induction.
First, in physics whenever we make statements about all experiments, all times or all
velocities, such statements are actually about a finite number of cases. We know today that
infinities, both in size and in number, do not occur in nature. The infinite number of cases
appearing in statements in classical physics and in quantum mechanics are apparent, not
real, and due to human simplifications and approximations. Statements that a certain
experiment gives the same result everywhere or that a given equation is correct for all
times, always encompass only a finite number of examples. A great deal of otherwise
often instinctive repulsion to such statements is avoided in this way. In the sciences, as
well as in this book, all never means an infinite number of cases.
Finally, it is well known that extrapolating from a few cases to many is false when the
few cases are independent of each other. However, this conclusion is correct if the cases
are interdependent. From the fact that somebody found a penny on the street on two
subsequent months, cannot follow that he will find one the coming month. Induction
is only correct if we know that all cases have similar behaviour, e.g. because they follow
from the same origin. For example, if a neighbour with a hole in his pocket carries his
salary across that street once a month, and the hole always opens at that point because of
the beginning of stairs, then the conclusion would be correct. It turns out that the results
of modern physics encountered in the final part of our walk show that all situations in nature are indeed interdependent, and thus we prove in detail that what is called induction
is in fact a logically correct conclusion.

the quest for precision and its implications

277

the quest for precision and its implications

Ref. 259

Oscar Wilde

What are interactions? No emergence

The whole is always more than the sum of its


parts.
Aristotle, Metaphysica, 10f1045a.

In the physical description of nature, the whole is always more than the sum of its parts.
Actually, the difference between the whole and the sum of its parts is so important that
it has a special name: the interaction between the parts. For example, the energy of the
whole minus the sum of the energies of its parts is called the energy of interaction. In fact,
the study of interactions is the main topic of physics. In other words, physics is concerned
* The object of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts.

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Consistency is the last refuge of the


unimaginative.

To talk well about motion means to talk precisely. Precision requires avoiding three common mistakes in the description of nature.
First, concepts should never have a contradiction built into their definition. For example, any phenomenon occurring in nature evidently is a natural phenomenon; therefore,
to talk about either supernatural phenomena or unnatural phenomena is a mistake
that nobody interested in motion should let go unchallenged; such terms contain a logical contradiction. Naturally, all observations are natural. Incidentally, there is a reward
of more than a million dollars for anybody proving the opposite. In over twenty years,
nobody has yet been able to collect it.
Second, concepts should not have unclear or constantly changing definitions. Their
content and their limits must be kept constant and explicit. The opposite of this is often
encountered in crackpots or populist politicians; it distinguishes them from more reliable
thinkers. Physicists can also fall into the trap; for example, there is, of course, only one
single (physical) universe, as even the name says. To talk about more than one universe
is an increasingly frequent error.
Third, concepts should not be used outside their domain of application. It is easy to
succumb to the temptation to transfer results from physics to philosophy without checking the content. An example is the question: Why do particles follow the laws of nature?
The flaw in the question is due to a misunderstanding of the term laws of nature and
to a confusion with the laws of the state. If nature were governed by laws, they could be
changed by parliament. Remembering that laws of nature simply means pattern, property or description of behaviour, and rephrasing the question correctly as Why do particles behave in the way we describe their behaviour? one can recognize its senselessness.
In the course of our walk, we will often be tempted by these three mistakes. A few
such situations follow, with the ways of avoiding them.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 260

Der Zweck der Philosophie ist die logische


Klrung der Gedanken.*
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 4.112

278

Challenge
Ref.299
261s

Vol. I, page 367

Vol. VI, page 79

What is existence?

Assume a friend tells you I have seen a grampus today! You would naturally ask what it
looks like. What answer do we expect? We expect something like Its an animal with a
certain number of heads similar to a X, attached to a body like a Y , with wings like a Z, it
make noises like a U and it felt like a V the letters denoting some other animal or object.
Generally speaking, in the case of an object, this scene from Darwins voyage to South
America shows that in order to talk to each other, we first need certain basic, common
concepts (animal, head, wing, etc.). In addition, for the definition of a new entity we
need a characterization of its parts (size, colour), of the way these parts relate to each
other, and of the way that the whole interacts with the outside world (feel, sound). In

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Ref. 263

You know what I like most? Rhetorical


questions.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 300 s

primarily with the difference between the parts and the whole, contrary to what is often
suggested by bad journalists or other sloppy thinkers.
Note that the term interaction is based on the general observation that anything that
affects anything else is, in turn, affected by it; interactions are reciprocal. For example, if
one body changes the momentum of another, then the second changes the momentum
of the first by the same (negative) amount. The reciprocity of interactions is a result of
conservation laws. The reciprocity is also the reason that somebody who uses the term
interaction is considered a heretic by monotheistic religions, as theologians regularly
point out. These belief experts regularly stress that such a reciprocity implicitly denies
the immutability of the deity. (Are they correct?)
The application of the definition of interaction also settles the frequently heard question of whether in nature there are emergent properties, i.e., properties of systems that
cannot be deduced from the properties of their parts and interactions. By definition,
there are no emergent properties. Emergent properties can only appear if interactions
are approximated or neglected. The idea of emergent properties is a product of minds
with restricted horizons, unable to see or admit the richness of consequences that general principles can produce. In defending the idea of emergence, one belittles the importance of interactions, working, in a seemingly innocuous, maybe unconscious, but in fact
sneaky way, against the use of reason in the study of nature. Emergence is a belief.
The simple definition of interaction given above sounds elementary, but it leads to
surprising conclusions. Take the atomic idea of Democritus in its modern form: nature
is made of vacuum and of particles. The first consequence is the paradox of incomplete
description: experiments show that there are interactions between vacuum and particles.
However, interactions are differences between parts and the whole, in this case between
vacuum and particles on the one hand, and the whole on the other. We thus have deduced
that nature is not made of vacuum and particles alone.
The second consequence is the paradox of overcomplete description: experiments also
show that interactions happen through exchange of particles. However, we have counted
particles already as basic building blocks. Does this mean that the description of nature
by vacuum and particles is an overdescription, counting things twice?
We will resolve both paradoxes in the last part of our mountain ascent.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 262

9 concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

the quest for precision and its implications

Challenge 301 s

Do things exist?

Wer Wissenschaft und Kunst besitzt,


Hat auch Religion;
Wer jene beiden nicht besitzt,
Der habe Religion.*
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Zahme Xenien,
IX

Using the above definition of existence, the question becomes either trivial or imprecise.
It is trivial in the sense that things necessarily exist if they describe observations, since
they were defined that way. But perhaps the questioner meant to ask: Does reality exist
independently of the observer?
Using the above, this question can be rephrased: Do the things we observe exist independently of observation? After thousands of years of extensive discussion by professional philosophers, logicians, sophists and amateurs the answer is the same: it is Yes,
because the world did not change after great-grandmother died. The disappearance of
* He who possesses science and art, also has religion; he who does not possess the two, better have religion.

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copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 303 s

other words, for an object to exist, we must be able to give a list of relations with the
outside world. An object exists if we can interact with it. (Is observation sufficient to
determine existence?)
For an abstract concept, such as time or superstring, the definition of existence has to
be refined only marginally: (physical) existence is the effectiveness to describe interactions
accurately. This definition applies to trees, time, virtual particles, imaginary numbers,
entropy and so on. It is thus pointless to discuss whether a physical concept exists or
whether it is only an abstraction used as a tool for descriptions of observations. The two
possibilities coincide. The point of dispute can only be whether the description provided
by a concept is or is not precise.
For mathematical concepts, existence has a somewhat different meaning: a mathematical concept is said to exist if it has no built-in contradictions. This is a much weaker requirement than physical existence. It is thus incorrect to deduce physical existence from
mathematical existence. This is a frequent error; from Pythagoras times onwards it was
often stated that since mathematical concepts exist, they must therefore also exist in nature. Historically, this error occurred in the statements that planet orbits must be circles,
that planet shapes must be spheres or that physical space must be Euclidean. Today this
is still happening with the statements that space and time must be continuous and that
nature must be described by sets. In all these cases, the reasoning is wrong. In fact, the
continuous attempts to deduce physical existence from mathematical existence hide that
the opposite is correct: a short reflection shows that mathematical existence is a special
case of physical existence.
We note that there is also a different type of existence, namely psychological existence.
A concept can be said to exist psychologically if it describes human internal experience.
Thus a concept can exist psychologically even if it does not exist physically. It is easy to
find examples from the religions or from systems that describe inner experiences. Also
myths, legends and comic strips define concepts that only exist psychologically, not physically. In our walk, whenever we talk about existence, we mean physical existence only.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 302 s

279

280

Does the void exist?

Teacher: What is found between the nucleus


and the electrons?
Student: Nothing, only air.

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

In philosophical discussions void is usually defined as non-existence. It then becomes


a game of words to ask for a yes or no answer to the question Does the void exist? The
expression the existence of non-existence is either a contradiction of terms or is at least
unclearly defined; the topic would not seem to be of great interest. However, similar questions do appear in physics, and a physicist should be prepared to notice the difference
of this from the previous one. Does a vacuum exist? Does empty space exist? Or is the
world full everywhere, as the more conservative biologist Aristotle maintained? In the
past, people have been killed for giving an answer that was unacceptable to authorities.
It is not obvious, but it is nevertheless important, that the modern physical concepts
of vacuum and empty space are not the same as the philosophical concept of void.
Vacuum is not defined as non-existence; on the contrary, it is defined as the absence of

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

observers does not seem to change the universe. These experimental findings can be corroborated by inserting the definition of existence into the question, which then becomes:
Do the things we observe interact with other aspects of nature when they do not interact
with people? The answer is evident. Several popular books on quantum mechanics fantasize about the importance of the mind of observers whatever this term may mean;
they provide pretty examples of authors who see themselves as irreplaceable, seemingly
having lost the ability to see themselves as part of a larger entity.
Of course there are other opinions about the existence of things. The most famous is
that of the Irishman George Berkeley (16851753) who rightly understood that thoughts
based on observation alone, if spread, would undermine the basis of the religious organization of which he was one of the top managers. To counteract this tendency, in 1710
he published A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, a book denying
the existence of the material world. This reactionary book became widely known in likeminded circles (it was a time when few books were written) even though it is based on
a fundamentally flawed idea: it assumes that the concept of existence and that of world
can be defined independently. (You may be curious to try the feat.)
Berkeley had two aims when he wrote his book. First, he tried to deny the capacity of
people to arrive at judgements on nature or on any other matter from their own experience.
Second, he also tried to deny the ontological reach of science, i.e., the conclusions one can
draw from experience on the questions about human existence. Even though Berkeley is
generally despised nowadays, he actually achieved his main aim: he was the originator of
the statement that science and religion do not contradict, but complement each other. By
religion, Berkeley did not mean either morality or spirituality; every scientist is a friend
of both of these. By religion, Berkeley meant that the standard set of beliefs for which he
stood is above the deductions of reason. This widely cited statement, itself a belief, is still
held dearly by many even to this day. However, when searching for the origin of motion,
all beliefs stand in the way, including this one. Carrying beliefs is like carrying oversized
baggage: it prevents one from reaching the top of Motion Mountain.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 304 e

9 concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

the quest for precision and its implications

Challenge 305 s

Natura abhorret vacuum.

Antiquity

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* Evangelista Torricelli (b. 1608 Faenza, d. 1647 Florence), Italian physicist, pupil and successor to Galileo.
The (non-SI) pressure unit torr is named after him.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Vol. VI, page 81

matter and radiation. Vacuum is an entity with specific observable properties, such as its
number of dimensions, its electromagnetic constants, its curvature, its vanishing mass,
its interaction with matter through curvature and through its influence on decay, etc. (A
table of the properties of a physical vacuum is given on page 127.) Historically, it took a
long time to clarify the distinction between a physical vacuum and a philosophical void.
People confused the two concepts and debated the existence of the vacuum for more
than two thousand years. The first to state that it existed, with the courage to try to look
through the logical contradiction at the underlying physical reality, were Leucippus and
Democritus, the most daring thinkers of antiquity. Their speculations in turn elicited the
reactionary response of Aristotle, who rejected the concept of vacuum. Aristotle and his
disciples propagated the belief about natures horror of the vacuum.
The discussion changed completely in the seventeenth century, when the first experimental method to realize a vacuum was devised by Torricelli.* Using mercury in a glass
tube, he produced the first laboratory vacuum. Can you guess how? Arguments against
the existence of the vacuum again appeared around 1900, when it was argued that light
needed aether for its propagation, using almost the same arguments that had been used
two hundred years earlier, but in different words. However, experiments failed to detect
any of the supposed properties of this unclearly defined concept. Experiments in the field
of general relativity showed that a vacuum can move though in a completely different
way from the way in which the aether was expected to move that the vacuum can be
bent, but it then tends to return to its shape. Then, in the late twentieth century, quantum field theory again argued against the existence of a true vacuum and in favour of
a space full of virtual particleantiparticle pairs, culminating in the discussions around
the cosmological constant.
The question Does the void exist? is settled conclusively only in the last part of this
walk, in a rather surprising way.

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Vol. VI, page 54

281

282

9 concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

Is nature infinite?

It is certain and evident to our senses, that in


the world some things are in motion. Now
whatever is moved is moved by another... If that
by which it is moved be itself moved, then this
also needs to be to be moved by another, and
that by another again. But this cannot go on to
infinity, because then there would be no first
mover and consequently, no other mover,
seeing that subsequent movers move only
inasmuch as they are moved by the first mover,
as the staff moves only because it is moved by
the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a
first mover, moved by no other; and this
everyone understands to be god.
Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274) Summa
Theologiae, I, q. 2.

Page 244
Ref. 248

Ref. 249

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Challenge 306 s

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Vol. II, page 47

Most of the modern discussions about set theory centre on ways to defining the term set
for various types of infinite collections. For the description of motion this leads to two
questions: Is the universe infinite? Is it a set? We begin with the first one. Illuminating
the question from various viewpoints, we will quickly discover that it is both simple and
imprecise.
Do we need infinite quantities to describe nature? Certainly, in classical and quantum
physics we do, e.g. in the case of space-time. Is this necessary? We can say already a few
things.
Any set can be finite in one aspect and infinite in another. For example, it is possible
to proceed along a finite mathematical distance in an infinite amount of time. It is also
possible to travel along any distance whatsoever in a given amount of mathematical time,
making infinite speed an option, even if relativity is taken into account, as was explained
earlier.
Despite the use of infinities, scientists are still limited. We saw above that many types
of infinities exist. However, no infinity larger than the cardinality of the real numbers
plays a role in physics. No space of functions or phase space in classical physics and no
Hilbert space in quantum theory has higher cardinality. Despite the ability of mathematicians to define much larger kinds of infinities, the description of nature does not need
them. Even the most elaborate descriptions of motion use only the infinity of the real
numbers.
But is it possible at all to say of nature or of one of its aspects that it is indeed infinite? Can such a statement be compatible with observations? No. It is evident that every
statement that claims that something in nature is infinite is a belief, and is not backed by
observations. We shall patiently eliminate this belief in the following.
The possibility of introducing false infinities make any discussion on whether humanity is near the end of science rather difficult. The amount of knowledge and the time
required to discover it are unrelated. Depending on the speed with which one advances
through it, the end of science can be near or unreachable. In practice, scientists have
thus the power to make science infinite or not, e.g. by reducing the speed of progress. As
scientists need funding for their work, one can guess the stand that they usually take.

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283

In short, the universe cannot be proven to be infinite. But can it be finite? At first
sight, this would be the only possibility left. (It is not, as we shall see.) But even though
many have tried to describe the universe as finite in all its aspects, no one has yet been
successful. In order to understand the problems that they encountered, we continue with
the other question mentioned above:
Is the universe a set?
Ref. 264

Ref. 265

A simple observation leads us to question whether the universe is a set. For 2500 years
it has been said that the universe is made of vacuum and particles. This implies that the
universe is made of a certain number of particles. Perhaps the only person to have taken
this conclusion to the limit was the English astrophysicist Arthur Eddington (18821944),
who wrote:

* In quantum mechanics also other, more detailed definitions of locality are used. We will mention them
in the quantum part of this text. The issue mentioned here is a different, more fundamental one, and not
connected with that of quantum theory.

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Vol. IV, page 142

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Eddington was ridiculed over and over again for this statement and for his beliefs that
lead up to it. His arguments were indeed based on his personal preferences for certain
pet numbers. However, we should not laugh too loudly. In fact, for 2500 years almost all
scientists have thought along the same line, the only difference being that they have left
the precise number unspecified! In fact, any other number put into the above sentence
would be equally ridiculous. Avoiding specifying it is just a cowards way of avoiding
looking at this foggy aspect of the particle description of nature.
Is there a particle number at all in nature? If you smiled at Eddingtons statement, or
if you shook your head over it, it may mean that you instinctively believe that nature
is not a set. Is this so? Whenever we define the universe as the totality of events, or as
the totality of all space-time points and objects, we imply that space-time points can be
distinguished, that objects can be distinguished and that both can be distinguished from
each other. We thus assume that nature is separable and a set. But is this correct? The
question is important. The ability to distinguish space-time points and particles from
each other is often called locality. Thus the universe is separable or is a set if and only if
our description of it is local.* And in everyday life, locality is observed without exception.
In daily life we also observe that nature is separable and a whole at the same time.
It is a many that can be thought as one: in daily life nature is a set. Indeed, the basic
characteristic of nature is its diversity. In the world around us we observe changes and
differences; we observe that nature is separable. Furthermore, all aspects of nature belong
together: there are relations between these aspects, often called laws, stating that the
different aspects of nature form a whole, usually called the universe.
In other words, the possibility of describing observations with the help of laws follows from our experience of the separability of nature. The more precisely the separability
is specified, the more precisely the laws can be formulated. Indeed, if nature were not

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

I believe there are 15,747,724,136,275,002,577,605,653,961,181,555,468,044,


717,914,527,116,709,366,231,425,076,185,631,031,296 protons in the universe
and the same number of electrons.

284

Does the universe exist?

Vol. VI, page 104

Following the definition above, existence of a concept means its usefulness to describe
interactions. There are two common definitions of the concept of universe. The first is
the totality of all matter, energy and space-time. But this usage results in a strange consequence: since nothing can interact with this totality, we cannot claim that the universe
exists.
So let us take the more restricted view, namely that the universe is only the totality of
all matter and energy. But also in this case it is impossible to interact with the universe.
Can you give a few arguments to support this?
In short, we arrive at the conclusion that the universe does not exist. We will indeed
confirm this result in more detail later on in our walk. In particular, since the universe
does not exist, it does not make sense to even try to answer why it exists. The best answer

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Challenge 308 s

Each progressive spirit is opposed by a


thousand men appointed to guard the past.
Maurice Maeterlink

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 307 s

separable or were not a unity, we could not explain why stones fall downwards. Thus we
are led to speculate that we should be able to deduce all laws from the fact that nature
is separable.
In addition, only the separability allows us to describe nature at all. A description is a
classification, that is, a mapping between certain aspects of nature and certain concepts.
All concepts are sets and relations. Since the universe is separable, it can be described
with the help of sets and relations. Both are separable entities with distinguishable parts.
A precise description is commonly called an understanding. In short, the universe is
comprehensible only because it is separable.
Moreover, only the separability of the universe makes our brain such a good instrument. The brain is built from a large number of connected components, and only the
brains separability allows it to function. In other words, thinking is only possible because
nature is separable.
Finally, only the separability of the universe allows us to distinguish reference frames,
and thus to define all symmetries at the basis of physical descriptions. And in the same
way that separability is thus necessary for covariant descriptions, the unity of nature is
necessary for invariant descriptions. In other words, the so-called laws of nature are
based on the experience that nature is both separable and unifiable that it is a set.
These arguments seem overwhelmingly to prove that the universe is a set. However,
these arguments apply only to everyday experience, everyday dimensions and everyday
energies. Is nature a set also outside the domains of daily life? Are objects different at all
energies, even when they are looked at with the highest precision possible? We have three
open issues left: the issue of the number of particles in the universe; the circular definition of space, time and matter; and the issue as to whether describing nature as made of
particles and void is an overdescription, an underdescription, or neither. These three issues make us doubt whether objects are countable at all energies. We will discover in the
final part of our mountain ascent that this is not the case in nature. The consequences will
be extensive and fascinating. As an example, try to answer the following: if the universe
is not a set, what does that mean for space and time?

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Vol. VI, page 100

9 concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

the quest for precision and its implications

Ref. 207

285

might be: because of furiously sleeping, colourless green ideas.


What is creation?

Ref. 266

Ref. 267

Vol. II, page 235

* Nothing (can appear) from nothing, nothing can disappear into nothing.

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Vol. II, page 234

The term creation is often heard when talking about nature. It is used in various contexts
with different meanings.
One speaks of creation as the characterization of human actions, such as observed
in an artist painting or a secretary typing. Obviously, this is one type of change. In the
classification of change introduced at the beginning of our walk, the changes cited are
movements of objects, such as the electrons in the brain, the molecules in the muscles,
the material of the paint, or the electrons inside the computer. This type of creation is
thus a special case of motion.
One also speaks of creation in the biological or social sense, such as in the creation
of life, or creation of a business, or the creation of civilization. These events are forms of
growth or of self-organization; again, they are special cases of motion.
Physicists one often say that a lamp creates light or that a stone falling into a pond
creates water ripples. Similarly, they talk of pair creation of matter and antimatter. It
was one of the important discoveries of physics that all these processes are special types
of motion, namely excitation of fields.
In popular writing on cosmology, creation is also a term commonly applied, or better misapplied, to the big bang. However, the expansion of the universe is a pure example
of motion, and contrary to a frequent misunderstanding, the description of the big bang
contains only processes that fall into one of the previous three categories, as shown in the
relevant chapter in general relativity. The big bang is not an example of creation. Quantum cosmology provides more reasons to support the fact that the naive term creation
is not applicable to the big bang. First, it turns out that the big bang was not an event.
Second, it was not a beginning. Third, it did not provide a choice from a large set of possibilities. The big bang does not have any properties attributed to the term creation.
In summary, we conclude that in all cases, creation is a type of motion. (The same
applies to the notions of disappearance and annihilation.) No other type of creation is
observed in nature. In particular, the naive sense of creation, namely appearance from
nothing ex nihilo in Latin is never observed in nature. All observed types of creation require space, time, forces, energy and matter for their realization. Creation requires something to exist already, in order to take place. In addition, precise exploration

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Vol. V, page 106

Anaxagoras, discovering the ancient theory that


nothing comes from nothing, decided to
abolish the concept of creation and introduced
in its place that of discrimination; he did not
hesitate to state, in effect, that all things are
mixed to the others and that discrimination
produces their growth.
Anonymous fragment, Middle Ages.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Vol. IV, page 180

(Gigni) De nihilo nihilum, in nihilum nil posse


reverti.*
Persius, Satira, III, v. 83-84.

286

Vol. I, page 292

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Every act of creation is first of all an act of


destruction.
Pablo Picasso

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

shows that no physical process and no example of motion has a beginning. Our walk
will show us that nature does not allow us to pinpoint beginnings. This property alone
is sufficient to show that creation is not a concept applicable to what happens in nature.
Worse still, creation is applied only to physical systems; we will discover that nature is
not a system and that systems do not exist.
The opposite of creation is conservation. The central statements of physics are conservation theorems: for energy, mass, linear momentum, angular momentum, charge, etc.
In fact, every conservation law is a detailed and accurate rejection of the concept of creation. The ancient Greek idea of atoms already contains this rejection. Atomists stated
that there is no creation and no disappearance, but only motion of atoms. Every transformation of matter is a motion of atoms. In other words, the idea of the atom was a
direct consequence of the negation of creation. It took humanity over 2000 years before
it stopped locking people in jail for talking about atoms, as had happened to Galileo.
However, there is one exception in which the naive concept of creation does apply:
it describes what magicians do on stage. When a magician makes a rabbit appear from
nowhere, we indeed experience creation from nothing. At its best such magic is a form
of entertainment, at its worst, a misuse of gullibility. The idea that the universe results
from either of these two does not seem appealing; on second thought though, maybe
looking at the universe as the ultimate entertainment could open up a fresh and more
productive approach to life.
Voltaire (16941778) popularized an argument against creation often used in the past:
we do not know whether creation has taken place or not. Today the situation is different:
we do know that it has not taken place, because creation is a type of motion and, as we
will see in the concluding part of our mountain ascent, motion did not exist near the big
bang.
Have you ever heard the expression creation of the laws of nature? It is one of the
most common examples of disinformation. First of all, this expression confuses the laws
with nature itself. A description is not the same as the thing itself; everybody knows that
giving their beloved a description of a rose is different from giving an actual rose. Second,
the expression implies that nature is the way it is because it is somehow forced to follow
the laws a rather childish and, what is more, incorrect view. And third, the expression
assumes that it is possible to create descriptions of nature. But a law is a description,
and a description by definition cannot be created: so the expression makes no sense at
all. The expression creation of the laws of nature is the epitome of confused thinking.
It may well be that calling a great artist creative or divine, as was common during
the Renaissance, is not blasphemy, but simply an encouragement to the gods to try to
do as well. In fact, whenever one uses the term creation to mean anything other than
some form of motion, one is discarding both observations and human reason. It is one
of the last pseudo-concepts of our modern time; no expert on motion should forget this.
It is impossible to escalate Motion Mountain without getting rid of creation. This is not
easy. We will encounter the next attempt to bring back creation in the study of quantum
theory.

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287

Is nature designed?

Ref. 268

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014


free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

The tendency to infer the creation of an object from its simple existence is widespread.
Some people jump to this conclusion every time they see a beautiful landscape. This habit
stems from the triple prejudice that a beautiful scene implies a complex description, in
turn implying complex building instructions, and therefore pointing to an underlying
design.
This chain of thought contains several mistakes. First, in general, beauty is not a consequence of complexity. Usually it is the opposite: indeed, the study of chaos and of selforganization demonstrates how beautifully complex shapes and patterns can be generated with extremely simple descriptions. True, for most human artefacts, complex descriptions indeed imply complex building processes; a personal computer is a good example of a complex object with a complex production process. But in nature, this connection does not apply. We have seen above that even the amount of information needed to
construct a human body is about a million times smaller than the information stored in
the brain alone. Similar results have been found for plant architecture and for many other
examples of patterns in nature. The simple descriptions behind the apparent complexities of nature have been and are still being uncovered by the study of self-organization,
chaos, turbulence and fractal shapes. In nature, complex structures derive from simple
processes. Beware of anyone who says that nature has infinite or high complexity: first
of all, complexity is not a measurable entity, despite many attempts to quantify it. In addition, all known complex system can be described by (relatively) few parameters and
simple equations. Finally, nothing in nature is infinite.
The second mistake in the argument for design is to link a description with an instruction, and maybe even to imagine that some unknown intelligence is somehow pulling
the strings of the worlds stage. The study of nature has consistently shown that there is
no hidden intelligence and no instruction behind the processes of nature. An instruction
is a list of orders to an executioner. But there are no orders in nature, and no executioners. There are no laws of nature, only descriptions of processes. Nobody is building a
tree; the tree is an outcome of the motion of molecules making it up. The genes in the
tree do contain information; but no molecule is given any instructions. What seem to be
instructions to us are just natural movements of molecules and energy, described by the
same patterns taking place in non-living systems. The whole idea of instruction like
that of law of nature is an ideology, born from an analogy with monarchy or even
tyranny, and a typical anthropomorphism.
The third mistake in the argument for design is the suggestion that a complex description for a system implies an underlying design. This is not correct. A complex description only implies that the system has a long evolution behind it. The correct deduction is:
something of large complexity exists; therefore it has grown, i.e., it has been transformed
through input of (moderate) energy over time. This deduction applies to flowers, mountains, stars, life, people, watches, books, personal computers and works of art; in fact it

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Vol. I, page 357

In the beginning the universe was created. This


has made a lot of people very angry and has
been widely regarded as a bad move.
Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of
the Universe.

288

Vol. V, page 301

applies to all objects in the universe. The complexity of our environment thus points out
the considerable age of our environment and reminds us of the shortness of our own life.
The lack of basic complexity and the lack of instructions in nature confirm a simple
result: there is not a single observation in nature that implies or requires design or creation. On the other hand, the variety and intensity of natures phenomena fills us with
deep awe. The wild beauty of nature shows us how small a part of nature we actually are,
both in space and in time.* We shall explore this experience in detail. We shall find that
remaining open to natures phenomena in all their overwhelming intensity is central to
the rest of our adventure.

What is a description?

Following standard vocabulary usage, a description of an observation is a list of the details. The above example of the grampus showed this clearly. In other words, a description
of an observation is the act of categorizing it, i.e., of comparing, by identifying or distinguishing, the observation with all the other observations already made. A description is
a classification. In short, to describe means to see as an element of a larger set.
A description can be compared to the you are here sign on a city tourist map. Out
of a set of possible positions, the you are here sign gives the actual one. Similarly, a
description highlights the given situation in comparison with all other possibilities. For
example, the formula a = GM/r 2 is a description of the observations relating motion
to gravity, because it classifies the observed accelerations a according to distance to the
central body r and to its mass M; indeed such a description sees each specific case as
an example of a general pattern. The habit of generalizing is one reason for the often
disturbing dismissiveness of scientists: when they observe something, their professional
training usually makes them classify it as a special case of a known phenomenon and
thus keeps them from being surprised or from being exited about it.
A description is thus the opposite of a metaphor; the latter is an analogy relating an
observation with another special case; a description relates an observation with a general
case, such as a physical theory.

* The search for a sense in life or in nature is a complicated (and necessary) way to try to face the smallness
of human existence.
** Happy he who can know the causes of things and who, free of all fears, can lay the inexorable fate and
the noise of Acheron to his feet. Georgica, book II, verses 490 ss.) Publius Vergilius Maro (7019 bce), the
great roman poet, is author of the Aeneid. Acheron was the river crossed by those who had just died and
were on their way to the Hades.

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Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas,


atque metus omnis et inexorabile fatum
subjecit pedibus strepitumque acherontis avari.
Vergilius**

In theory, there is no difference between theory


and practice. In practice, there is.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

There is a separation between state and church,


but not yet between state and science.
Paul Feyerabend

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289

Reason, purpose and explanation

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* The whole modern conception of the world is founded on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature
are the explanations of natural phenomena.
** It is important to note that purposes are not put aside because they pertain to the future, but because
they are inadmissible anthropomorphisms. In fact, for deterministic systems, we can equally say that the
future is actually a reason for the present and the past, a fact often forgotten.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Compare the following two types of questions and answers:


1. Why are the leaves of most trees green? Because they absorb red and blue light. Why
do they absorb those colours? Because they contain chlorophyll. Why is chlorophyll
green? Because all chlorophyll types contain magnesium between four pyrrole groups,
and this chemical combination gives the green colour, as a result of its quantum mechanical energy levels. Why do plants contain chlorophyll? Because this is what land
plants can synthesize. Why only this? Because all land plants originally evolved from
the green algae, who are only able to synthesize this compound, and not the compounds found in the blue or in the red algae, which are also found in the sea.
2. Why do children climb trees, and why do some people climb mountains? Because of
the sensations they experience during their activity: the feelings of achievement, the
symbolic act to go upwards, the wish to get a wider view of the world are part of this
type of adventure.
The two types of why-questions show the general difference between reasons and purposes (although the details of these two terms are not defined in the same way by everybody). A purpose or intention is a classification applied to the actions of humans or
animals; strictly speaking, it specifies the quest for a feeling, namely for achieving some
type of satisfaction after completion of the action. On the other hand, a reason is a specific relation of a fact with the rest of the universe, usually its past. What we call a reason
always rests outside the observation itself, whereas a purpose is always internal to it.
Reasons and purposes are the two possibilities of explanations, i.e., the two possible
answers to questions starting with why. Usually, physics is not concerned with purpose
or with peoples feeling, mainly because its original aim, to talk about motion with precision, does not seem to be achievable in this domain. Therefore, physical explanations of
facts are never purposes, but are always reasons. A physical explanation of an observation
is always the description of its relation with the rest of nature.**
This means that contrary to common opinion a question starting with why is accessible to physical investigation as long as it asks for a reason and not for a purpose. In
particular, questions such as why do stones fall downwards and not upwards? or why do
electrons have that value of mass, and why do they have mass at all? or why does space
have three dimensions and not thirty-six? can be answered, as these ask for the connection between specific observations and more general ones. Of course, not all demands
for explanation have been answered yet, and there are still problems to be solved. Our
present trail only leads from a few answers to some of the more fundamental questions

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 269

Der ganzen modernen Weltanschauung liegt


die Tuschung zugrunde, da die sogenannten
Naturgesetze die Erklrungen der
Naturerscheinungen seien.*
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 6.371

290

9 concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

about motion.
The most general quest for an explanation derives from the question: why is the universe the way it is? The topic is covered in our mountain ascent using the two usual
approaches, namely:
Unification and demarcation

Tout sujet est un; et, quelque vaste quil soit, il


peut tre renferm dans un seul discours.*
Buffon, Discours sur le style.

Studying the properties of motion, constantly paying attention to increase the accuracy
of description, we find that explanations are generally of two types:**

* Every subject is one and, however vast it is, it can be comprised in a single discourse.
** Are these the only possible ones?
*** These two cases have not to be confused with similar sentences that seem to be explanations, but that
arent:
It is like the case of ... A similarity with another single case is not an explanation.
If it were different, it would contradict the idea that ... A contradiction with an idea or with a theory is
not an explanation.

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Challenge 309 s

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

In other words, the first approach is to formulate rules or laws that describe larger and
larger numbers of observations, and compare the observation with them. This endeavour is called the unification of physics by those who like it; those who dont like it, call
it reductionism. For example, the same rule describes the flight of a tennis ball, the motion of the tides at the sea shore, the timing of ice ages, and the time at which the planet
Venus ceases to be the evening star and starts to be the morning star. These processes
are all consequences of universal gravitation. Similarly, it is not evident that the same
rule describes the origin of the colour of the eyes, the formation of lightning, the digestion of food and the working of the brain. These processes are described by quantum
electrodynamics.
Unification has its most impressive successes when it predicts an observation that
has not been made before. A famous example is the existence of antimatter, predicted
by Dirac when he investigated the solutions of an equation that describes the precise
behaviour of common matter.
The second procedure in the search for explanations is the elimination of all other
imaginable alternatives in favour of the actually correct one. This endeavour has no commonly accepted name: it could be called the demarcation of the laws of physics by
those who like it; others call it anthropocentrism, or simply arrogance.
When we discover that light travels in such a way that it takes the shortest possible
time to its destination, when we describe motion by a principle of least action, or when

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

1. It is like all such cases; also this one is described by ... The situation is recognized as
a special case of a general behaviour.
2. If the situation were different, we would have a conclusion in contrast with observations. The situation is recognized as the only possible case.***

the quest for precision and its implications

Challenge 310 s
Challenge 311 s

291

we discover that trees are branched in such a way that they achieve the largest effect with
the smallest effort, we are using a demarcation viewpoint.
In summary, unification, answering why questions, and demarcation, answering
why not questions, are typical for the progress throughout the history of physics. We
can say that the dual aspects of unification and demarcation form the composing and
the opposing traits of physics. They stand for the desire to know everything.
However, neither demarcation nor unification can explain the universe. Can you see
why? In fact, apart from unification and demarcation, there is a third possibility that
merges the two and allows one to say more about the universe. Can you find it? Our
walk will automatically lead to it later.
Pigs, apes and the anthropic principle

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* The most important instrument of a scientist is the waste paper basket.


** For a collection of pictures of this event, see e.g. the garbo.uwasa.fi/pc/gifslevy.html website.
*** Fred Hoyle (b. 1915 Bingley, d. 2001), important British astronomer and astrophysicist. He was the first
and maybe only physicist who ever made a specific prediction namely the existence of an excited state of
the carbon nucleus from the simple fact that humans exist. A permanent maverick, he coined the term big
bang even though he did not accept the evidence for it, and proposed another model, the steady state. His
most important and well-known research was on the formation of atoms inside stars. He also propagated
the belief that life was brought to Earth from extraterrestrial microbes.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 270

The wish to achieve demarcation of the patterns of nature is most interesting when we
follow the consequences of different rules of nature until we find them in contradiction
with the most striking observation: our own human existence. In this special case the program of demarcation is often called the anthropic principle from the Greek ,
meaning man.
For example, if the SunEarth distance were different from what it is, the resulting
temperature change on the Earth would have made impossible the appearance of life,
which needs liquid water. Similarly, our brain would not work if the Moon did not circle
the Earth. It is also well-known that if there were fewer large planets in the solar system, the evolution of humans would have been impossible. The large planets divert large
numbers of comets, preventing them from hitting the Earth. The spectacular collision
of comet ShoemakerLevy-9 with Jupiter, the astronomical event of July 1994, was an
example of this diversion of a comet.**
Also the anthropic principle has its most impressive successes when it predicts unknown observations. The most famous example stems from the study of stars. Carbon
atoms, like all other atoms except most hydrogen, helium or lithium atoms, are formed in
stars through fusion. While studying the mechanisms of fusion in 1953, the well-known
British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle*** found that carbon nuclei could not be formed from
the alpha particles present inside stars at reasonable temperatures, unless they had an excited state with an increased cross-section. From the fact of our existence, which is based
on carbon, Hoyle thus predicted the existence of a previously unknown excited state of
the carbon nucleus. And, indeed, the excited state was found a few months later by Willy

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Das wichtigste Hilfsmittel des Wissenschaftlers


ist der Papierkorb.*
Several authors

292

Ref. 271

9 concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

Er wunderte sich, da den Katzen genau an den


Stellen Lcher in den Pelz geschnitten wren,
wo sie Augen htten.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg***

Does one need cause and effect in explanations?

The world owes you nothing. It was there first.


Mark Twain

No matter how cruel and nasty and evil you


may be, every time you take a breath you make
a flower happy.
Mort Sahl

Historically, the two terms cause and effect have played an important role in philosophical discussions. In particular, during the birth of modern mechanics, it was important
to point out that every effect has a cause, in order to distinguish precise thought from
* William A. Fowler (19111995) shared the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics with Subramanyan Chandrasekhar
for this and related discoveries.
** Though apes do not seem to be good physicists, as described in the text by D. J. Povinelli, Folk Physics
for Apes: the Chimpanzees Theory of How the World Works, Oxford University Press, 2000.
*** He was amazed that cats had holes cut into their fur precisely in those places where they had eyes.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (17421799), German physicist and intellectual, professor in Gttingen, still
famous today for his extremely numerous and witty aphorisms and satires. Among others of his time, Lichtenberg made fun of all those who maintained that the universe was made exactly to the measure of man, a
frequently encountered idea in the foggy world of the anthropic principle.

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Ref. 272

There are in nature neither rewards nor


punishments there are only consequences.
Robert Ingersoll

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Fowler.*
In its serious form, the anthropic principle is therefore the quest to deduce the description of nature from the experimental fact of our own existence. In the popular literature,
however, the anthropic principle is often changed from a simple experimental method to
deduce the patterns of nature, to its perverted form, a melting pot of absurd metaphysical
ideas in which everybody mixes up their favourite beliefs. Most frequently, the experimental observation of our own existence has been perverted to reintroduce the idea of
design, i.e., that the universe has been constructed with the aim of producing humans;
often it is even suggested that the anthropic principle is an explanation a gross example
of disinformation.
How can we distinguish between the serious and the perverted form? We start with
an observation. We would get exactly the same rules and patterns of nature if we used
the existence of pigs or monkeys as a starting point. In other words, if we would reach
different conclusions by using the porcine principle or the simian principle, we are using
the perverted form of the anthropic principle, otherwise we are using the serious form.
(The carbon-12 story is thus an example of the serious form.) This test is effective because
there is no known pattern or law of nature that is particular to humans but unnecessary
for apes or pigs.**

the quest for precision and its implications

293

thought based on beliefs, such as miracles, divine surprises or evolution from nothing.
It was equally essential to stress that effects are different from causes; this distinction
avoids pseudo-explanations such as the famous example by Molire where the doctor
explains to his patient in elaborate terms that sleeping pills work because they contain a
dormitive virtue.
But in physics, the concepts of cause and effect are not used at all. That miracles do
not appear is expressed every time we use symmetries and conservation theorems. The
observation that cause and effect differ from each other is inherent in any evolution equation. Moreover, the concepts of cause and effect are not clearly defined; for example, it is
especially difficult to define what is meant by one cause as opposed to several of them,
and the same for one or several effects. Both terms are impossible to quantify and to measure. In other words, useful as cause and effect may be in personal life for distinction
between events that regularly succeed each other, they are not necessary in physics. In
physical explanations, they play no special roles.

Is consciousness required?

Ref. 273

Cicero

A lot of mediocre discussions are going on about this topic, and we will skip them here.
What is consciousness? Most simply and concretely, consciousness means the possession
of a small part of oneself that is watching what the rest of oneself is perceiving, feeling, thinking and doing. In short, consciousness is the ability to observe oneself, and in
particular ones inner mechanisms and motivations. Consciousness is the ability of introspection. For this reason, consciousness is not a prerequisite for studying motion. Indeed,
animals, plants or machines are also able to observe motion. For the same reason, consciousness is not necessary to observe quantum mechanical motion. On the other hand,
both the study of motion and that of oneself have a lot in common: the need to observe
carefully, to overcome preconceptions, to overcome fear and the fun of doing so.
For the time being, we have put enough emphasis on the precision of concepts. Talking about motion is also something to be deeply enjoyed. Let us see why.

* Good and bad one and the same.


** When a doctor walks behind the coffin of his patient, indeed the cause sometimes follows the effect.
*** Change pleases. Marcus Tullius Cicero (10643 bce), important lawyer, orator and politician at the
end of the Roman republic.

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Precision and clarity obey the indeterminacy


relation: their product is constant.
Niels Bohr

Wenn ein Arzt hinter dem Sarg seines Patienten


geht, so folgt manchmal tatschlich die Ursache
der Wirkung.**
Robert Koch

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Variatio delectat.***

Heraclitus

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

` .*

294

9 concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

Curiosity

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* This distinction is the basis of Rudolf Otto, Das Heilige ber das Irrationale in der Idee des Gttlichen
und sein Verhltnis zum Rationalen, Beck 1991. This is a new edition of the epoch-making work originally
published at the beginning of the twentieth century. Rudolf Otto (18691937) was one of the most important
theologians of his time.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 275

Like the history of every person, also the history of mankind charts a long struggle to
avoid the pitfalls of accepting the statements of authorities as truth, without checking the
facts. Indeed, whenever curiosity leads us to formulate a question, there are always two
general ways to proceed. One is to check the facts personally, the other is to ask somebody.
However, the last way is dangerous: it means to give up a part of oneself. Healthy people,
children whose curiosity is still alive, as well as scientists, choose the first way. After all,
science is adult curiosity.
Curiosity, also called the exploratory drive, plays strange games with people. Starting
with the original experience of the world as a big soup of interacting parts, curiosity can
drive one to find all the parts and all the interactions. It drives not only people. It has been
observed that when rats show curious behaviour, certain brain cells in the hypothalamus
get active and secrete hormones that produce positive feelings and emotions. If a rat has
the possibility, via some implanted electrodes, to excite these same cells by pressing a
switch, it does so voluntarily: rats get addicted to the feelings connected with curiosity.
Like rats, humans are curious because they enjoy it. They do so in at least four ways:
because they are artists, because they are fond of pleasure, because they are adventurers
and because they are dreamers. Let us see how.
Originally, curiosity stems from the desire to interact in a positive way with the environment. Young children provide good examples: curiosity is a natural ingredient of
their life, in the same way that it is for other mammals and a few bird species; incidentally, the same taxonomic distribution is found for play behaviour. In short, all animals
that play are curious, and vice versa. Curiosity provides the basis for learning, for creativity and thus for every human activity that leaves a legacy, such as art or science. The
artist and art theoretician Joseph Beuys (19201986) had as his own guiding principle
that every creative act is a form of art. Humans, and especially children, enjoy curiosity
because they feel its importance for creativity, and for growth in general.
Curiosity regularly leads one to exclaim: Oh!, an experience that leads to the second reason to be curious: relishing feelings of wonder and surprise. Epicurus (Epikuros)
(341271 bce) maintained that this experience, , is the origin of philosophy.
These feelings, which nowadays are variously called religious, spiritual, numinous, etc.,
are the same as those to which rats can become addicted. Among these feelings, Rudolf
Otto has introduced the now classical distinction into the fascinating and the frightening.
He named the corresponding experiences mysterium fascinans and mysterium tremendum.* Within these distinctions, physicists, scientists, children and connoisseurs take a
clear stand: they choose the fascinans as the starting point for their actions and for their
approach to the world. Such feelings of fascination induce some children who look at the
night sky to dream about becoming astronomers, some who look through a microscope

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Ref. 274

Precision is the child of curiosity.

the quest for precision and its implications

Ref. 276

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* Several researchers have studied the situations leading to these magic moments in more detail, notably
the Prussian physician and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz (18211894) and the French mathematician
Henri Poincar (18541912). They distinguish four stages in the conception of an idea at the basis of such a
magic moment: saturation, incubation, illumination and verification.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

to become biologists or physicists, and so on. (It could also be that genetics plays a role
in this pleasure of novelty seeking.)
Perhaps the most beautiful moments in the study of physics are those appearing after
new observations have shaken our previously held thinking habits, have forced us to give
up a previously held conviction, and have engendered the feeling of being lost. When, in
this moment of crisis, we finally discover a more adequate and precise description of
the observations, which provide a better insight into the world, we are struck by a feeling usually called illumination. Anyone who has kept alive the memory and the taste
for these magic moments knows that in these situations one is pervaded by a feeling of
union between oneself and the world.* The pleasure of these moments, the adventures
of the change of thought structures connected with them, and the joy of insight following them provides the drive for many scientists. Little talk and lots of pleasure is their
common denominator. In this spirit, the great Austrian physicist Victor Weisskopf (1908
2002) liked to say jokingly: There are two things that make life worth living: Mozart
and quantum mechanics.
The choice of moving away from the tremendum towards the fascinans stems from
an innate desire, most obvious in children, to reduce uncertainty and fear. This drive is
the father of all adventures. It has a well-known parallel in ancient Greece, where the first
men studying observations, such as Epicurus, stated explicitly that their aim was to free
people from unnecessary fear by deepening knowledge and transforming people from
frightened passive victims into fascinated, active and responsible beings. Those ancient
thinkers started to popularize the idea that, like the common events in our life, the rarer
events also follow rules. For example, Epicurus underlined that lightning is a natural
phenomenon caused by interactions between clouds, and stressed that it was a natural
process, i.e., a process that followed rules, in the same way as the falling of a stone or any
other familiar process of everyday life.
Investigating the phenomena around them, philosophers and later scientists succeeded in freeing people from most of their fears caused by uncertainty and a lack of
knowledge about nature. This liberation played an important role in the history of human culture and still pervades in the personal history of many scientists. The aim to
arrive at stable, rock-bottom truths has inspired (but also hindered) many of them; Albert Einstein is a well-known example for this, discovering relativity, helping to start up
but then denying quantum mechanics.
Interestingly, in the experience and in the development of every human being, curiosity, and therefore the sciences, appears before magic and superstition. Magic needs deceit
to be effective, and superstition needs indoctrination; curiosity doesnt need either. Conflicts of curiosity with superstitions, ideologies, authorities or the rest of society are thus
preprogrammed.
Curiosity is the exploration of limits. For every limit, there are two possibilities: the
limit can turn out to be real or apparent. If the limit is real, the most productive attitude is
that of acceptance. Approaching the limit then gives strength. If the limit is only apparent

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Ref. 277

295

296

9 concepts, lies and pat terns of nature

and in fact non-existent, the most productive attitude is to re-evaluate the mistaken view,
extract the positive role it performed, and then cross the limit. Distinguishing between
real and apparent limits is only possible when the limit is investigated with great care,
openness and unintentionality. Most of all, exploring limits need courage.

Courage

Il est dangereux davoir raison dans des choses


o des hommes accrdits ont tort.**
Voltaire

Manche suchen Sicherheit, wo Mut gefragt ist,


und suchen Freiheit, wo das Richtige keine
Wahl lt.***
Bert Hellinger

Ref. 280

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Ref. 279

* The unveiled secret takes revenge.


** It is dangerous to be right in matters where established men are wrong.
*** Some look for security where courage is required and look for freedom where the right way doesnt
leave any choice.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Ref. 278

Most of the material in this chapter is necessary in the adventure to get to the top of Motion Mountain. But we need more. Like any enterprise, curiosity also requires courage,
and complete curiosity, as aimed for in our quest, requires complete courage. In fact, it
is easy to get discouraged on this journey. The quest is often dismissed by others as useless, uninteresting, childish, confusing, damaging, crazy or, above all, evil. For example,
between the death of Socrates in 399 bce and Paul Thierry, Baron dHolbach, in the eighteenth century, no book was published with the statement gods do not exist, because of
the threats to the life of anyone who dared to make the point. Even today, this type of
attitude still abounds, as the newspapers show.
Through the constant elimination of uncertainty, both curiosity and scientific activity
are implicitly opposed to any idea, person or organization that tries to avoid the comparison of statements with observations. These avoiders demand to live with superstitions
and beliefs. But superstitions and beliefs produce unnecessary fear. And fear is the basis
of all unjust authorities. One gets into a vicious circle: avoiding comparison with observation produces fear fear keeps unjust authority in place unjust authority avoids
comparison with observation etc.
Through the constant drive towards certainty, curiosity and science are fundamentally opposed to unjust authority, a connection that made life difficult for people such
as Anaxagoras (500428 bce) in ancient Greece, Hypatia in the Christian Roman empire, Galileo Galilei in the church state, Antoine Lavoisier in France and Albert Einstein
(and many others) in Germany. In the second half of the twentieth century, victims were
Robert Oppenheimer, Melba Phillips and Chandler Davis in the United States, and Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union. Each of them tell a horrible but instructive story, as
have, more recently, Fang Lizhi, Xu Liangying, Liu Gang and Wang Juntao in China, Kim
Song-Man in South Corea, Otanazar Aripov in Uzbekistan, Ramadan al-Hadi al-Hush in

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Das gelftete Geheimnis rcht sich.*


Bert Hellinger

the quest for precision and its implications

297

It is difficult to make a man miserable while he


feels he is worthy of himself.
Abraham Lincoln

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

And the gods said to man: Take what you want,


and pay the price.
Popular saying

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Libya, Bo Bo Htun in Burma, Sami Kilani and Salman Salman in Palestine, Abdus Salam
in Pakistan, as well as many hundreds of others. In many authoritarian societies the antagonism between curiosity and injustice has hindered or even completely suppressed
the development of physics and other sciences, with extremely negative economic, social and cultural consequences.
When embarking on the adventure to understand motion, we need to be conscious of
what we are doing. In fact, external obstacles can be avoided or at least largely reduced
by keeping the project to oneself. Other difficulties still remain, this time of personal
nature. Many have tried to embark on this adventure with some hidden or explicit intention, usually of an ideological nature, and then have got entangled by it before reaching
the end. Some have not been prepared to accept the humility required for such an endeavour. Others were not prepared for the openness required, which can shatter deeply
held beliefs. Still others were not ready to turn towards the unclear, the dark and the
unknown, confronting them at every occasion.
On the other hand, the dangers are worth it. By taking curiosity as a maxim, facing
disinformation and fear with all ones courage, one achieves freedom from all beliefs. In
exchange, you come to savour the fullest pleasures and the deepest satisfaction that life
has to offer.
We thus continue our hike. At this point, the trail towards the top of Motion Mountain is leading us towards the next adventure: discovering the origin of sizes, shapes and
colours in nature.

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C h a p t e r 10

C L A S SIC A L PH YSIC S I N A N U T SHE L L

What can move?

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014


free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

In nature, four entities can move: objects, radiation, space-time and horizons. In all cases,
their motion happens in such a way as to minimize change. Change is also called (physical) action. In short, all motion minimizes action.
In all cases of motion, we distinguish the fixed, intrinsic properties from the varying
state. We learned to distinguish and to characterize the possible intrinsic properties and
the possible states of each moving entity.
About objects, we found that in everyday life, all sufficiently small objects or particles
are described completely by their mass and their electric charge. There is no magnetic
charge. Mass and electric charge are thus the only localized intrinsic properties of classical, everyday objects. Both mass and electric charge are defined by the accelerations
they produce around them. Both quantities are conserved; thus they can be added (with
certain precautions). Mass, in contrast to charge, is always positive. Mass describes the
interaction of objects in collisions and in gravitation, charge the interaction with electromagnetic fields.
All varying aspects of objects, i.e., their state, can be described using momentum and
position, as well as angular momentum and orientation. These four quantities can vary
continuously in amount and direction. Therefore the set of all possible states forms a
space, the so-called phase space. The state of extended, shape-changing objects is given by
the states of all its constituent particles. These particles make up all objects by interacting
electromagnetically.
The Lagrangian determines the action, or total change, of any kind of motion. Action,
or change, is independent of the observer; the state is not. The states found by different
observers are related: the relations are called the laws or properties of motion. For different times they are called evolution equations, for different places and orientations they

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Page 8

lassical electrodynamics, with mechanics, thermodynamics and relativity,


ompletes our walk through classical physics. In the structure of physics,
lassical physics encompasses four of the eight points that make up all of physics,
the science of motion. As a whole, classical physics describes the motion of everyday
bodies, the motion of heat, the motion of extremely fast objects, the motion of empty
space, and the motion of light and electric charge. By completing classical physics, we
have covered one half of our adventure. Let us summarize what we have found out about
motion so far and what we did not.

cl assical physics in a nu tshell

299

Around us, we observe motion for objects, radiation, space-time and horizons. In our
exploration of classical physics, we distilled six specific properties of all classical or
everyday motion.

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1. Everyday motion is continuous. Continuous motion allows defining space and time.
All energy moves in the way space-time dictates it, and space moves the way energy
dictates it. This relation describes the motion of the stars, of thrown stones, of light
beams and of the tides. Rest and free fall are the same, and gravity is curved spacetime. Mass breaks conformal symmetry and thus distinguishes space from time.
The continuity of motion is somewhat limited: The (local) speed of energy, mass
and charge is bound from above by a universal constant c, and (local) energy change
per time is bound from above by a universal constant c 5 /4G. The speed value c is
realized for the motion of massless particles. It also relates space to time. The power
value c 5 /4G is realized by horizons. Horizons are found around black holes and at the
border of the universe. The maximum power value also relates space-time curvature
to energy flow and thus describes the elasticity of space-time.
The continuity of motion is limited in a second way: No two objects can be at the
same spot at the same time. This is the first statement that humans encounter about

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Properties of classical motion

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

are called transformation relations, and for different gauges they are called gauge transformations. Motion of each everyday objects is fully described by the principle of least
action: motion minimizes action.
Radiation also moves. Everyday types of radiation, such as light, radio waves and their
related forms, are travelling electromagnetic waves. They are described by same equations that describe the interaction of charged or magnetic objects. The speed of massless
fields is the maximum possible energy speed in nature and is the same for all observers.
The motion of radiation describes the motion of images. The intrinsic properties of radiation are its dispersion relation and its energyangular momentum relation. The state
of radiation is described by its electromagnetic field strength, its phase, its polarization
and its coupling to matter. The motion of the electromagnetic field and of radiation minimizes action and change.
Space-time is also able to move, by changing its curvature. The intrinsic properties of
space-time are the number of dimensions, its signature and its topology. The large scale
topology of space-time is simple. The state of space-time is given by the metric, which
describes distances and curvature, and thus the local warpedness. The warpedness can
oscillate and propagate, so that empty space can move like a wave. Also the motion of
space-time minimizes change. The principle of least action is valid.
Horizons can be seen as limit cases of either space-time or matter-radiation. The share
the same intrinsic and state properties. The dark night sky, the boundary of the universe,
is the most important example of a horizon. Other examples are the boundaries of black
holes. The universe, both its space-time and its matter content, shows maximum age
and distance values. The history of the universe is long, about three times as long as the
history of the Earth. On large scales, all matter in the universe moves away from all other
matter: the universe, and its horizon, is expanding.

300

2.

3.
4.
5.

In short, our exploration of classical physics showed us that motion is predictable and
limited: nature follows patterns and rules and there are no surprises in nature.
Even though we will discover later that some rare examples of non-everyday motion
violate reversibility and mirror-invariance, the other four properties of motion are valid
throughout nature. Above all, we saw that motion minimizes action. This deep result remains valid throughout our adventure.
If you think that you know classical physics well, read the excellent collection by
Friedrich Herrmann, Historical Burdens on Physics, available for free downloads,
at www.physikdidaktik.uni-karlsruhe.de/index_en.html. If the topics presented there
all simple to understand are clear to you, you have become a real expert on classical
physics.
The future of planet Earth

* The web pages around cfa-www.harvard.edu/iau/lists/Closest.html provide more information on such


events.

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Ref. 281

Maybe nature shows no surprises, but it still provides many adventures. On the 2nd
of March 2009, a small asteroid almost hit the Earth. It passed at a distance of only
63 500 km from our planet. On impact, it would have destroyed a region the size of London. Such events occur regularly.* Several other adventures can be predicted by classical
physics; they are listed in Table 25. Several items are problems facing humanity in the
distant future, but some, such as volcanic eruptions or asteroid impacts, could happen at
any time. All are research topics.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 312 e

electromagnetism. It is due to the repulsion of charges of the same sign found in matter. More detailed investigation shows that electric charge accelerates other charges,
that charge is necessary to define length and time intervals, and that charges are the
source of electromagnetic fields. Also light is such a field. Light travels at the maximum possible velocity c. In contrast to objects, light and electromagnetic fields can
interpenetrate.
Everyday motion conserves mass, electric charge, energy, linear momentum and angular momentum. For these quantities, nothing appears out of nothing. Conservation
applies to all kinds of motion: to linear motion, to rotational motion, and to motion
of matter, radiation, space-time and horizons. Energy and momentum are similar
to continuous substances: they are never destroyed, never created, but always redistributed.
Everyday motion is relative: motion depends on the observer.
Everyday motion is reversible: everyday motion can occur backwards.
Everyday motion is mirror-invariant: everyday motion can occur in a mirror-reversed
way. In short, we found that the classical motion of objects, radiation and space-time
is rightleft symmetric.
Everyday motion is lazy: motion happens in a way that minimizes change, i.e., physical action. In Galilean physics and electrodynamics, action is the time average of the
difference between kinetic and potentail energy. In general relativity, action takes into
account the curvature and elasticity of space-time. The principle of least action or
cosmic lazyness hold for all cases.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

6.

10 cl assical physics in a nu tshell

cl assical physics in a nu tshell

301

TA B L E 25 Examples of disastrous motion of possible future importance.

C r i t i c a l s i t uat i o n

Ye a r s f r o m n o w

Giant tsunami from volcanic eruption at Canary islands


End of fundamental physics, with a definite proof that nature is
simple
Major nuclear material accident or weapon use
Explosion of volcano in Greenland, Italy or elsewhere, leading to
long darkening of sky
Explosion of Yellowstone or other giant volcano leading to yearlong volcanic winter
Earths mantle instability leading to massive volcanic activity
Mini ice age due to collapse of gulf stream
Ozone shield reduction
Rising ocean levels due to greenhouse warming
End of applied physics
Several magnetic north and south poles appear, allowing solar
storms to disturb radio and telecommunications, to interrupt
electricity supplies, to increase animal mutations and to disorient migrating animals such as wales, birds and tortoises
Our interstellar gas cloud detaches from the solar systems, changing the size of the heliosphere, and thus expose us more to aurorae and solar magnetic fields
Reversal of Earths magnetic field, implying a time with almost
no magnetic field, with increased cosmic radiation levels and
thus more skin cancers and miscarriages
Atmospheric oxygen depletion due to forest reduction and exaggerated fuel consumption
Upcoming ice age
Possible collision with interstellar gas cloud assumed to be
crossed by the Earth every 60 million years, maybe causing mass
extinctions
Possible genetic degeneration of homo sapiens due to Y chromosome reduction
Africa collides with Europe, transforming the Mediterranean
into a lake that starts evaporating
Gamma ray burst from within our own galaxy, causing radiation
damage to many living beings
Asteroid hitting the Earth, generating tsunamis, storms, darkening sunlight, etc.
Neighbouring star approaching, starting comet shower through
destabilization of Oort cloud and thus risk for life on Earth
American continent collides with Asia
Molecular cloud engulfs the solar system
Instability of solar system

c. 10-200
c. 20 (around year 2030)
unknown
unknown
0 to 100 000

c. 3 000

unknown

c. 15 000
c. 50 000

c. 200 000
around 3 106

between 0 and 50 106


> 106
> 100 106
unknown
> 100 106

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

between 0 and 5 106

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

> 1000

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

unknown
unknown
c. 100
> 100
> 200
c. 800

302

10 cl assical physics in a nu tshell

TA B L E 25 (Continued) Examples of disastrous motion of possible future importance.

C r i t i c a l s i t uat i o n

Ye a r s f r o m n o w

Low atmospheric CO2 content stops photosynthesis


Collision of Milky Way with star cluster or other galaxy
Sun ages and gets hotter, evaporating seas
Ocean level increase due to Earth rotation slowing/stopping (if
not evaporated before)
Temperature rise/fall (depending on location) due to Earth rotation stop
Sun runs out of fuel, becomes red giant, engulfs Earth
Sun stops burning, becomes white dwarf
Earth core solidifies, removing magnetic field and thus Earths
cosmic radiation shield
Nearby nova (e.g. Betelgeuse) bathes Earth in annihilation radiation
Nearby supernova (e.g. Eta Carinae) blasts over solar system
Galaxy centre destabilizes rest of galaxy
Universe recollapses if ever (see page 129, volume II)
Matter decays into radiation if ever (see Appendix B in vol. V)
Problems with naked singularities
Vacuum becomes unstable

> 100 106


> 150 106
> 250 106
> 109
> 109
5.0 109
5.2 109
10.0 109
Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

unknown
unknown
unknown
> 20 109
> 1033
only in science fiction
only in science fiction

Im an old man and Ive known many troubles.


Most of them never happended.
Anonymous wisdom

The essence of classical physics the infinitely small and the


lack of surprises

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We can summarize classical physics with two simple statements: First, classical physics is
the description of motion using the concept of the infinitely small. Secondly, nature lacks
surprises.
All concepts used so far, be they for motion, space, time or observables, assume that
the infinitely small exists. Special relativity, despite the speed limit, still allows infinitely
small velocities; general relativity, despite its black hole limit, still allows infinitely small
force and power values. Similarly, in the description of electrodynamics and gravitation,
both integrals and derivatives are abbreviations of mathematical processes that use and
assume infinitely small distances and time intervals. In other words, the classical description of nature introduces and is based on the infinitely small in the description of motion.
Using the infinitely small as a research tool, the classical description of motion discovers that energy, momentum, angular momentum and electric charge are conserved.
They are conserved also for infinitely small dimensions or time intervals. In other words,

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Despite the fascination of the predictions (all made in the year 2000), we leave aside these
literally tremendous issues and continue on our adventure.

cl assical physics in a nu tshell

303

there are no surprises in motion.


The detailed study of conservation has lead us to a strong conclusion: the infinitely
small shows us that motion is deterministic. The existence of real surprises would contradict determinism.*
Classical physics is the absence of surprises. As reassuring as this result may be, it
leaves us with a doubt. Both special and general relativity have eliminated the existence
of the infinitely large. There is no infinitely large force, power, size, age or speed. Why
should the infinitely small exist, but the infinitely large not? In fact, there are still more
open questions about motion.
Summary: Why have we not yet reached the top of the mountain?

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* No surprises also imply no miracles. Classical physics is thus in opposition to many religions. Indeed,
many religions argue that infinity is the necessary ingredient to perform miracles. Classical physics shows
that this is not the case.
** From his address at the dedication ceremony for the Ryerson Physical Laboratory at the University of
Chicago.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Page 213

We might think that we know nature now, as did Albert Michelson at the end of the
nineteenth century. He claimed that electrodynamics and Galilean physics implied that
the major laws of physics were well known. The statement is often quoted as an example
of flawed predictions, since it reflects an incredible mental closure to the world around
him. The origin of every size, shape and colour from the atoms to humans and up to
the universe was unknown when Michelson, who later even earned the Nobel Prize in
physics, gave his speech. Indeed, not only was general relativity still unknown; above all,
quantum theory still needed to be discovered.
Many physicists in Michelsons time knew that important changes in the description
of nature were necessary. Michelson had overlooked three contradiction between electrodynamics and nature for which he had no excuse. First of all, we found above that
clocks and metre bars are necessarily made of matter and necessarily based on electromagnetism. But as we saw, classical electrodynamics does not explain the stability and
properties of matter and atoms. Matter is made of small particles, but the relation between these particles, electricity and the smallest charges is not clear. If we do not understand matter, we do not yet understand space and time, since we defined space and time
using measurement devices made of matter.
Secondly, Michelson knew that the origin of no colour observed in nature is described
by classical electrodynamics. Classical electrodynamics can only explain colour differences and colour changes, but it cannot describe absolute colour values.
Worse, Michelson overlooked a third aspect: the classical description of nature does
not allow us to understand life. The abilities of living beings growing, seeing, hearing,

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

The more important fundamental laws and facts


of physical science have all been discovered,
and these are now so firmly established that the
possibility of their ever being supplanted in
consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly
remote... Our future discoveries must be looked
for in the sixth place of decimals.
Albert Michelson, 1894.**

304

10 cl assical physics in a nu tshell

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

feeling, thinking, being healthy or sick, reproducing and dying are all unexplained by
classical physics. In fact, all these abilities contradict classical physics.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the progress in technology due to the use of
electricity, chemistry and vacuum technology allowed better and better machines and
apparatuses to be built. All were built with classical physics in mind. In the years between
1890 and 1920, these classical machines completely destroyed the foundations of classical
physics. Experiments with these apparatuses showed that matter is made of atoms of
finite and constant size, that electrical charge comes in smallest amounts, that there is a
smallest entropy value, a smallest angular momentum value and a smallest action value
in nature, and that particles and light behave randomly. In short, precise experiments
show that in nature, the existence of the infinitely small is wrong in many cases: many
observables come in quanta. Like an old empire, the reign of classical physics collapsed.
Classical physics does not describe nature correctly at small scales.
In summary, understanding light, matter and its interactions, including life itself, is
the aim of the upcoming parts of our ascent of Motion Mountain. And to understand life
we need to understand the size, shape, colour and material properties of all things. And
this understanding takes place at small scales. More specifically, in order to understand
light, matter and life, we need to study particles. A lot is still left to explore. And this
exploration will lead us from wonder to wonder.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014


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Appendix A

UNIT S, MEA SUREMENT S AND


C ON STAN T S

All SI units are built from seven base units, whose official definitions, translated from
French into English, are given below, together with the dates of their formulation:

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The second is the duration of 9 192 631 770 periods of the radiation corresponding
to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133
atom. (1967)*
The metre is the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299 792 458 of a second. (1983)*
The kilogram is the unit of mass; it is equal to the mass of the international prototype
of the kilogram. (1901)*
The ampere is that constant current which, if maintained in two straight parallel conductors of infinite length, of negligible circular cross-section, and placed 1 metre apart in
vacuum, would produce between these conductors a force equal to 2 107 newton per
metre of length. (1948)*
The kelvin, unit of thermodynamic temperature, is the fraction 1/273.16 of the thermodynamic temperature of the triple point of water. (1967)*
The mole is the amount of substance of a system which contains as many elementary
entities as there are atoms in 0.012 kilogram of carbon 12. (1971)*

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

SI units

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Ref. 282

easurements are comparisons with standards. Standards are based on units.


any different systems of units have been used throughout the world.
ost of these standards confer power to the organization in charge of them.
Such power can be misused; this is the case today, for example in the computer industry,
and was so in the distant past. The solution is the same in both cases: organize an independent and global standard. For measurement units, this happened in the eighteenth
century: in order to avoid misuse by authoritarian institutions, to eliminate problems
with differing, changing and irreproducible standards, and this is not a joke to
simplify tax collection and to make it more just, a group of scientists, politicians and
economists agreed on a set of units. It is called the Systme International dUnits, abbreviated SI, and is defined by an international treaty, the Convention du Mtre. The units
are maintained by an international organization, the Confrence Gnrale des Poids et
Mesures, and its daughter organizations, the Commission Internationale des Poids et
Mesures and the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM). All originated in
the times just before the French revolution.

306

a units, measurements and constants

The candela is the luminous intensity, in a given direction, of a source that emits
monochromatic radiation of frequency 540 1012 hertz and has a radiant intensity in that
direction of (1/683) watt per steradian. (1979)*
We note that both time and length units are defined as certain properties of a standard
example of motion, namely light. In other words, also the Confrence Gnrale des Poids
et Mesures makes the point that the observation of motion is a prerequisite for the definition and construction of time and space. Motion is the fundament of every observation
and measurement. By the way, the use of light in the definitions had been proposed already in 1827 by Jacques Babinet.**
From these basic units, all other units are defined by multiplication and division. Thus,
all SI units have the following properties:

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* The respective symbols are s, m, kg, A, K, mol and cd. The international prototype of the kilogram is
a platinumiridium cylinder kept at the BIPM in Svres, in France. For more details on the levels of the
caesium atom, consult a book on atomic physics. The Celsius scale of temperature is defined as: /C =
T/K 273.15; note the small difference with the number appearing in the definition of the kelvin. SI also
states: When the mole is used, the elementary entities must be specified and may be atoms, molecules, ions,
electrons, other particles, or specified groups of such particles. In the definition of the mole, it is understood
that the carbon 12 atoms are unbound, at rest and in their ground state. In the definition of the candela, the
frequency of the light corresponds to 555.5 nm, i.e., green colour, around the wavelength to which the eye
is most sensitive.
** Jacques Babinet (17941874), French physicist who published important work in optics.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Vol. I, page 93
Ref. 283

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

SI units form a system with state-of-the-art precision: all units are defined with a precision that is higher than the precision of commonly used measurements. Moreover, the
precision of the definitions is regularly being improved. The present relative uncertainty
of the definition of the second is around 1014 , for the metre about 1010 , for the kilogram about 109 , for the ampere 107 , for the mole less than 106 , for the kelvin 106 and
for the candela 103 .
SI units form an absolute system: all units are defined in such a way that they can
be reproduced in every suitably equipped laboratory, independently, and with high precision. This avoids as much as possible any misuse by the standard-setting organization.
(The kilogram, still defined with the help of an artefact, is the last exception to this requirement; extensive research is under way to eliminate this artefact from the definition
an international race that will take a few more years. There are two approaches: counting particles, or fixing . The former can be achieved in crystals, e.g., crystals made of
pure silicon, the latter using any formula where appears, such as the formula for the de
Broglie wavelength or that of the Josephson effect.)
SI units form a practical system: the base units are quantities of everyday magnitude. Frequently used units have standard names and abbreviations. The complete list
includes the seven base units just given, the supplementary units, the derived units and
the admitted units.
The supplementary SI units are two: the unit for (plane) angle, defined as the ratio
of arc length to radius, is the radian (rad). For solid angle, defined as the ratio of the
subtended area to the square of the radius, the unit is the steradian (sr).
The derived units with special names, in their official English spelling, i.e., without
capital letters and accents, are:

a units, measurements and constants

Name

A b b r e v i at i o n

Name

A b b r e v i at i o n

hertz
pascal
watt
volt
ohm
weber
henry
lumen
becquerel
sievert

Hz = 1/s
Pa = N/m2 = kg/m s2
W = kg m2 /s3
V = kg m2 /As3
= V/A = kg m2 /A2 s3
Wb = Vs = kg m2 /As2
H = Vs/A = kg m2 /A2 s2
lm = cd sr
Bq = 1/s
Sv = J/kg = m2 /s2

newton
joule
coulomb
farad
siemens
tesla
degree Celsius
lux
gray
katal

N = kg m/s2
J = Nm = kg m2 /s2
C = As
F = As/V = A2 s4 /kg m2
S = 1/
T = Wb/m2 = kg/As2 = kg/Cs
C (see definition of kelvin)
lx = lm/m2 = cd sr/m2
Gy = J/kg = m2 /s2
kat = mol/s

We note that in all definitions of units, the kilogram only appears to the powers of 1,
0 and 1. Can you try to formulate the reason?
The admitted non-SI units are minute, hour, day (for time), degree 1 = /180 rad,
minute 1 = /10 800 rad, second 1 = /648 000 rad (for angles), litre and tonne. All
other units are to be avoided.
All SI units are made more practical by the introduction of standard names and abbreviations for the powers of ten, the so-called prefixes:*
Power Name

Power Name

101
102
103
106
109
1012
1015

101
102
103
106
109
1012
1015

1018 Exa
1021 Zetta
1024 Yotta
unofficial:
1027 Xenta
1030 Wekta
1033 Vendekta
1036 Udekta

deca da
hecto h
kilo k
Mega M
Giga G
Tera T
Peta P

deci
centi
milli
micro
nano
pico
femto

d
c
m

n
p
f

Power Name
E
Z
Y

1018
1021
1024

atto
zepto
yocto

a
z
y

xenno
weko
vendeko
udeko

x
w
v
u

Ref. 284

X
W
V
U

1027
1030
1033
1036

Challenge 314 e

* Some of these names are invented (yocto to sound similar to Latin octo eight, zepto to sound similar
to Latin septem, yotta and zetta to resemble them, exa and peta to sound like the Greek words and
for six times and five times, the unofficial ones to sound similar to the Greek words for nine,
ten, eleven and twelve); some are from Danish/Norwegian (atto from atten eighteen, femto from femten
fifteen); some are from Latin (from mille thousand, from centum hundred, from decem ten, from nanus
dwarf ); some are from Italian (from piccolo small); some are Greek (micro is from small, deca/deka
from ten, hecto from hundred, kilo from thousand, mega from large, giga from
giant, tera from monster).
Translate: I was caught in such a traffic jam that I needed a microcentury for a picoparsec and that my
cars fuel consumption was two tenths of a square millimetre.

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SI units form a complete system: they cover in a systematic way the full set of observables of physics. Moreover, they fix the units of measurement for all other sciences
as well.

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Power Name

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 313 s

307

308

a units, measurements and constants

SI units form a universal system: they can be used in trade, in industry, in commerce,
at home, in education and in research. They could even be used by extraterrestrial civilizations, if they existed.
SI units form a coherent system: the product or quotient of two SI units is also an SI
unit. This means that in principle, the same abbreviation, e.g. SI, could be used for every
unit.
The SI units are not the only possible set that could fulfil all these requirements, but they
are the only existing system that does so.* In the near future, the BIPM plans to use the
cube of physical constants, shown in Figure 1, to define SI units. This implies fixing the
values of e and k in addition to the already fixed value for c. The only exception will
remain the fixing of a basic time unit with the help of an atomic transition, not with the
constant G, because this constant cannot be measured with high precision.
The meaning of measurement

* Apart from international units, there are also provincial units. Most provincial units still in use are of
Roman origin. The mile comes from milia passum, which used to be one thousand (double) strides of about
1480 mm each; today a nautical mile, once defined as minute of arc on the Earths surface, is exactly 1852 m).
The inch comes from uncia/onzia (a twelfth now of a foot). The pound (from pondere to weigh) is used
as a translation of libra balance which is the origin of its abbreviation lb. Even the habit of counting
in dozens instead of tens is Roman in origin. These and all other similarly funny units like the system
in which all units start with f , and which uses furlong/fortnight as its unit of velocity are now officially
defined as multiples of SI units.

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Measurements are the basis of physics. Every measurement has an error. Errors are due
to lack of precision or to lack of accuracy. Precision means how well a result is reproduced
when the measurement is repeated; accuracy is the degree to which a measurement corresponds to the actual value.
Lack of precision is due to accidental or random errors; they are best measured by the

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Precision and accuracy of measurements

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 315 e

Every measurement is a comparison with a standard. Therefore, any measurement requires matter to realize the standard (even for a speed standard), and radiation to achieve
the comparison. The concept of measurement thus assumes that matter and radiation exist and can be clearly separated from each other.
Every measurement is a comparison. Measuring thus implies that space and time exist,
and that they differ from each other.
Every measurement produces a measurement result. Therefore, every measurement
implies the storage of the result. The process of measurement thus implies that the situation before and after the measurement can be distinguished. In other terms, every
measurement is an irreversible process.
Every measurement is a process. Thus every measurement takes a certain amount of
time and a certain amount of space.
All these properties of measurements are simple but important. Beware of anybody
who denies them.

a units, measurements and constants

309

N
number of measurements

standard deviation
full width at half maximum
(FWHM)
limit curve for a large number
of measurements: the
Gaussian distribution
x
average value

x
measured values

standard deviation, usually abbreviated ; it is defined through


2

where x is the average of the measurements xi . (Can you imagine why n 1 is used in
the formula instead of n?)
For most experiments, the distribution of measurement values tends towards a normal distribution, also called Gaussian distribution, whenever the number of measurements is increased. The distribution, shown in Figure 156, is described by the expression
N(x) e

Ref. 285

Challenge 318 e

()2
2 2

(108)

The square 2 of the standard deviation is also called the variance. For a Gaussian distribution of measurement values, 2.35 is the full width at half maximum.
Lack of accuracy is due to systematic errors; usually these can only be estimated. This
estimate is often added to the random errors to produce a total experimental error, sometimes also called total uncertainty. The relative error or uncertainty is the ratio between
the error and the measured value.
For example, a professional measurement will give a result such as 0.312(6) m. The
number between the parentheses is the standard deviation , in units of the last digits.
As above, a Gaussian distribution for the measurement results is assumed. Therefore, a
value of 0.312(6) m implies that the actual value is expected to lie
within 1 with 68.3 % probability, thus in this example within 0.312 0.006 m;

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Challenge 317 e

(107)

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Challenge 316 s

1 n
(x x)2 ,
n 1 i=1 i

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

F I G U R E 156 A precision experiment and its measurement distribution. The precision is high if the
width of the distribution is narrow; the accuracy is high if the centre of the distribution agrees with the
actual value.

310

Challenge 319 s

within 2 with 95.4 % probability, thus in this example within 0.312 0.012 m;
within 3 with 99.73 % probability, thus in this example within 0.312 0.018 m;
within 4 with 99.9937 % probability, thus in this example within 0.312 0.024 m;
within 5 with 99.999 943 % probability, thus in this example within 0.312 0.030 m;
within 6 with 99.999 999 80 % probability, thus within 0.312 0.036 m;
within 7 with 99.999 999 999 74 % probability, thus within 0.312 0.041 m.

(Do the latter numbers make sense?)


Note that standard deviations have one digit; you must be a world expert to use two,
and a fool to use more. If no standard deviation is given, a (1) is assumed. As a result,
among professionals, 1 km and 1000 m are not the same length!
What happens to the errors when two measured values A and B are added or subtracted? If the all measurements are independent or uncorrelated the standard deviation of the sum and that of difference is given by = A2 + B2 . For both the product
or ratio of two measured and uncorrelated values C and D, the result is = C2 + 2D ,
where the terms are the relative standard deviations.
Assume you measure that an object moves 1.0 m in 3.0 s: what is the measured speed
value?
Limits to precision

Challenge 321 e

Ref. 287

In physics, general observations are deduced from more fundamental ones. As a consequence, many measurements can be deduced from more fundamental ones. The most
fundamental measurements are those of the physical constants.
The following tables give the worlds best values of the most important physical constants and particle properties in SI units and in a few other common units as published in the standard references. The values are the world averages of the best measurements made up to the present. As usual, experimental errors, including both random
and estimated systematic errors, are expressed by giving the standard deviation in the
last digits. In fact, behind each of the numbers in the following tables there is a long
story which is worth telling, but for which there is not enough room here.

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Ref. 286

Physical constants

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Vol. VI, page 88

What are the limits to accuracy and precision? There is no way, even in principle, to
measure a length x to a precision higher than about 61 digits, because in nature, the ratio
between the largest and the smallest measurable length is x/x > lPl /dhorizon = 1061 .
(Is this ratio valid also for force or for volume?) In the final volume of our text, studies
of clocks and metre bars strengthen this theoretical limit.
But it is not difficult to deduce more stringent practical limits. No imaginable machine
can measure quantities with a higher precision than measuring the diameter of the Earth
within the smallest length ever measured, about 1019 m; that is about 26 digits of precision. Using a more realistic limit of a 1000 m sized machine implies a limit of 22 digits.
If, as predicted above, time measurements really achieve 17 digits of precision, then they
are nearing the practical limit, because apart from size, there is an additional practical
restriction: cost. Indeed, an additional digit in measurement precision often means an
additional digit in equipment cost.

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Challenge 320 s

a units, measurements and constants

a units, measurements and constants

Ref. 286
Vol. V, page 246

311

In principle, all quantitative properties of matter can be calculated with quantum theory and the values of certain physical constants. For example, colour, density and elastic
properties can be predicted using the equations of the standard model of particle physics
and the values of the following basic constants.
TA B L E 27 Basic physical constants.

Q ua n t i t y

Symbol

Constants that define the SI measurement units


Vacuum speed of lightc
c
c
Vacuum permeability
0

CKM quark mixing matrix

|V |

Jarlskog invariant

PMNS neutrino mixing m.

0.160 217 656 5(35) aC


2.2 108
23
1.380 6488(13) 10 J/K 9.1 107
6.673 84(80) 1011 Nm2 /kg2 1.2 104
2.076 50(25) 1043 s2 /kg m 1.2 104
3+1
1/137.035 999 074(44)

0b
3.2 1010

= 0.007 297 352 5698(24)


1.166 364(5) 105 GeV2
1/30.1(3)
0.231 24(24)
0.2224(19)

3.2 1010
4.3 106
1 102
1.0 103
8.7 103

0.118(3)
25 103
0.97428(15) 0.2253(7)
0.00347(16)
0.2252(7) 0.97345(16) 0.0410(11)
0.00862(26) 0.0403(11) 0.999152(45)
2.96(20) 105
0.82
0.55
0.15 + 0.038i

0.36 + 0.020i 0.70 + 0.013i


0.61
0.44 + 0.026i 0.45 + 0.017i
0.77

Elementary particle masses (of unknown origin)


Electron mass
me
9.109 382 91(40) 1031 kg
5.485 799 0946(22) 104 u
0.510 998 928(11) MeV
Muon mass
m
1.883 531 475(96) 1028 kg

4.4 108
4.0 1010
2.2 108
5.1 108

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Strong coupling constant d

= em (me2 c 2 )
GF /(c)3
w (MZ ) = w2 /4
sin2 W (MS)
sin2 W (on shell)
= 1 (mW /mZ )2
s (MZ ) = s2 /4

e.m. coupling constant


Fermi coupling constant d or
weak coupling constant
Weak mixing angle

299 792 458 m/s


0
7
4 10 H/m
0
= 1.256 637 061 435 ... H/m0
8.854 187 817 620 ... pF/m 0
6.626 069 57(52) 1034 Js
4.4 108
1.054 571 726(47) 1034 Js 4.4 108

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Fundamental constants (of unknown origin)


Number of space-time dimensions
2
Fine-structure constant d or
= 4e c

U n c e r t. a

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Vacuum permittivityc
0 = 1/0 c 2
Original Planck constant
h
Reduced Planck constant,

quantum of action
Positron charge
e
Boltzmann constant
k
Gravitational constant
G
Gravitational coupling constant = 8G/c 4

Va l u e i n S I u n i t s

312

a units, measurements and constants

TA B L E 27 (Continued) Basic physical constants.

Va l u e i n S I u n i t s

U n c e r t. a
2.5 108
3.4 108

Tau mass
El. neutrino mass
Muon neutrino mass
Tau neutrino mass
Up quark mass
Down quark mass
Strange quark mass
Charm quark mass
Bottom quark mass
Top quark mass
Photon mass
W boson mass
Z boson mass
Higgs mass
Gluon mass

m
m e
m e
m e
u
d
s
c
b
t

W
Z0
H
g1...8

0.113 428 9267(29) u


105.658 3715(35) MeV
1.776 82(16) GeV/c 2
< 2 eV/c 2
< 2 eV/c 2
< 2 eV/c 2
1.8 to 3.0 MeV/c 2
4.5 to 5.5 MeV/c 2
95(5) MeV/c 2
1.275(25) GeV/c 2
4.18(17) GeV/c 2
173.5(1.4) GeV/c 2
< 2 1054 kg
80.385(15) GeV/c 2
91.1876(21) GeV/c 2
126(1) GeV/c 2
c. 0 MeV/c 2

Composite particle masses


Proton mass

mp

Atomic mass unit

a. Uncertainty: standard deviation of measurement errors.


b. Only measured from to 1019 m to 1026 m.
c. Defining constant.
d. All coupling constants depend on the 4-momentum transfer, as explained in the section on
renormalization. Fine-structure constant is the traditional name for the electromagnetic coupling constant em in the case of a 4-momentum transfer of Q 2 = me2 c 2 , which is the smallest
2 2
c ) 1/128.
one possible. At higher momentum transfers it has larger values, e.g., em (Q 2 = MW
In contrast, the strong coupling constant has lover values at higher momentum transfers; e.g.,
s (34 GeV) = 0.14(2).

Why do all these constants have the values they have? For any constant with a dimension, such as the quantum of action , the numerical value has only historical meaning.
It is 1.054 1034 Js because of the SI definition of the joule and the second. The question
why the value of a dimensional constant is not larger or smaller therefore always requires
one to understand the origin of some dimensionless number giving the ratio between the

free pdf le available at www.motionmountain.net

Page 123

4.4 108
8.9 1011
2.2 108
4.4 108
4.2 1010
2.2 108
4.4 108

copyright Christoph Schiller June 1990February 2014

Neutron mass

1.672 621 777(74) 1027 kg


1.007 276 466 812(90) u
938.272 046(21) MeV
mn
1.674 927 351(74) 1027 kg
1.008 664 916 00(43) u
939.565 379(21) MeV
mu = m12 C /12 = 1 u1.660 538 921(73) yg

Motion Mountain The Adventure of Physics

Symbol

Q ua n t i t y

a units, measurements and constants

Vol. IV, page 195

313

constant and the corresponding natural unit that is defined with c, G, and . More details and the values of the natural units are given later. Understanding the sizes of atoms,
peop